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MAN WHO CANNOT DIE: Phantom Shields of the New Guinea Highlands

Boylan & Phillips Publish the Definitive Volume on Rare Phantom Shields from the Highlands of Papua New Guinea

SYDNEY AND TORONTO—In the second half of the twentieth century, an artistic tradition arose in the Wahgi Valley of the highlands of Papua New Guinea of painting traditional war shields with the image of the comic book superhero The Phantom. This derived from some seemingly inexplicable intersection of the age-old bellicose traditions of one of the most culturally remote areas of the world and twentieth-century comic book illustration, if not pop art—a phenomenon that art historian N. F. Karlins has referred to as pop tribal. The frequent text in English or in Tok Pisin on other examples—man ino save dai (man who cannot die) or man bilong pait (man of war —only adds to the multicultural depth. Though these appear to be curiously syncretic objects to the Western eye, to the people of the Wahgi Valley they held deep meaning to the martial power of moral rectitude and the guidance of ancestral spirits.

A new book published in February 2021 by art dealers Chris Boylan of Sydney, Australia, and Jessica Lindsay Phillips of Toronto, Canada, is an exhaustive study of this tradition. Titled Man Who Cannot Die: Phantom Shields of the New Guinea Highlands, it features essays by a number of experts in the field, placing the shields within their historical, cultural, and cosmological contexts. A catalog section illustrates 105 examples from museum and private collections in North America, Europe, and the Antipodes, drawn from a research group of some 150 shields, which represent the majority of known examples.

Boylan field-collected many of the known examples and his chapter discusses the circumstances of their history, use, and discovery. Phillips helped place a remarkable number of the shields in collections in the Toronto area and beyond, and she writes about the acquisition and placement of these shields in Western collections.

Other contributors include Kevin Patrick, the leading scholar on The Phantom, who describes the dissemination of the character throughout the Pacific region; psychologist Hubert Langmann, who addresses the psychological implications of The Phantom’s depiction on the shields; and comic collector Bruce Cree, who provides context about the history of The Phantom in comics. Editor in chief of Tribal Art magazine, Jonathan Fogel, edited the book and provides a foreword.

Research for the book resulted in the identification of a number of different artists, distinguishable by their styles. Some of their names are known—the late Kaipel Ka of Banz township, for example—while others can be referred to only by distinguishing stylistic characteristics—the Ocher Painter or the Confident Line Painter. The catalog section is arranged to show the relationships of the various shields within these stylistic groups.

Special Exhibition: the San Fransisco Objects of Art Show

​Join us for the 35th Annual San Francisco Tribal and Textile Art Show
Virtual Edition – February 24-28, 2021

A virtual show bringing you extraordinary objects of meaning for your home or your collection.

Explore the exotic, colorful, magical, mystical world of Tribal and Ethnographic Art. Enjoy and acquire objects created by indigenous cultures over millennia. More than 60 top-tier galleries and dealers from the US and around the globe showing remarkable stone and wood carvings, paintings, jewelry, and pottery and the finest ancient and contemporary textiles and rugs from North Africa, the Middle East, Asia, India, Oceania and the Americas.

A special exhibit based on the recently published, Man Who Cannot Die, Phantom Shields of the New Guinea Highlands, by art dealers Chris Boylan of Sydney, Australia and Jessica Lindsey Phillips of Toronto, Canada, and edited by Jonathon Fogel, editor in chief of Tribal Art magazine. The exhibit will include commentary and images drawn from the works of an artistic tradition that arose in the Wahgi Valley of the highlands of Papua New Guinea in the second half of the twentieth century, the painting of traditional war shields with the image of the comic book superhero The Phantom.

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