In Focus

Shield (koraibi)

This superb shield (koraibi) made from lightweight wood was acquired in 1968 from an elderly shaman of the Siriottoi clan, Matsebu, who had inherited it from his father as part of the latter’s headhunting equipment. He had kept the shield because of its incised drawings of hands that had been carved over the shield’s original designs. Incised outlines of hands appear above and below the raised protrusion on the front of the shield, and a single hand outline appears at the top of the reverse side. Hands serve as a mne­monic device that is used to preserve and keep alive the memory of deceased relatives. Consequently, when all those who had known the deceased passed on and memory had sufficiently faded, such incised items were generally no longer kept. The shield was so darkened with age that before selling it, Matsebu felt compelled to clean it. After the shield was washed in water, its original colors and designs boldly reemerged. The colors were created from local natural materials: the juice of the red kalumanang fruit and black soot that was mixed with the juice squeezed from the bark of the onam tree.

This shield’s motifs are a good example of the two principles of repetition and symmetri­cal arrangement—which are highlighted by the Mentawaians’ ingenious technique for shaping beautifully balanced and exact­ing spirals. According to the statements of some informants, the small figures at the tapered lower ends of each side of the shield represent the victims of a headhunting raid. On some other shields, a squatting toad is depicted, which is reminiscent of the custom of tattooing warriors with the image of a toad (whose appearance suggests a headless body to Mentawaians) after a successful head­hunt. The occasional figures of other small animals, however, are reported to be purely decorative.

These shields were made exclusively for headhunting raids (pulakeubat ). Generally these raids were undertaken together by the members of a few neighboring longhouses, and they took place far from the men’s own homes in other remote valleys on the island. The raiders came stealing up in a row, the first ones carrying dag­gers and machetes, the middle ones holding bows and poisoned arrows, and the last ones bearing sharpened spears. All except the middle group carried shields as protection against hostile arrows.

Mentawaian shields were made from slightly convex-shaped sections of the exposed buttressing roots of gite trees. The wood was first exposed to fire and smoked in order to make it insect-resistant. Then it was hewn into shape, finely formed, and lastly painted with natural red and black pigments. During a shield’s creation, an activity that demanded all of the maker’s attention, he had to abide by various taboos and to refrain from sexual inter­course. Once the shield was finished, a ritual offering of a chicken was made as a final gesture to inaugurate and prepare the koraibi for its protective tasks.

These shields are known to come only from Siberut, which was the one island in the Mentawai Archipelago where people practiced headhunting in historical times. They exhibit a distinctively taper­ing lower end, with a rounded tip below a curving middle portion that flares into a broad upper section. In the midsection is a raised protrusion formed by one-half of a split coconut shell. The coconut shell is fastened to a circular opening in the center of the shield with rattan bindings. Dividing the opening is a wooden grip. The coconut shell served as a guard to protect the warrior’s hand.

According to Heinrich Hugo Karny, a biologist who traveled to Siberut in 1924, shields had become scarce even in those days. The form of this shield type is documented as early as the 1890s. Some shields with even older collection dates are in venerable muse­ums with large ethnographic collections. Among these specimens, there are variations in form and in the designs painted on the sur­face. However, since their exact pedigree or provenance is unknown, it is not clear whether these stylistic variations are due to the regional isolation of different groups or to other historical factors.

Adapted from

Reimar Schefold, "Shield (koraibi)," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 34-35.