Phantom superhero PNG tribal shields on view in Sydney
When tribesmen of the Papua New Guinean Highlands grabbed their machetes and set off for battle, they needed a shield with the strongest, most protective imagery they could get. Enter the Phantom, aka “the ghost who walks”, aka “the man who cannot die”.
Used in PNG as a literacy aide in the late 1970s, the comic book hero created by Lee Falk in 1936 was quickly adopted by warring Highlanders who wanted the fearless Phantom emblazoned on their shields.
Only about 150 of the Phantom shields are still in existence, according to tribal art dealer Chris Boylan, who is exhibiting a dozen of them at Michael Reid gallery in Surry Hills.
Some of the shields are by unknown artists, while others are by the late Highlander artist Kaipel Ka or by John Wahgi, who still lives in his uplands village.
“Kaipel Ka was probably the first one to paint the Phantom (on shields),” Boylan said.
Warriors would bring their shields to these “sign-writers” to be decorated.
With price tags of between $4000 and $11,000, the shields are all owned by Boylan. He has lifelong connections to PNG and has been collecting the country’s art for 40 years.
The Phantom was the only comic book hero the Highlanders ever painted.
“They saw Phantom as being a strong character, so he fitted in the same style as a New Guinea warrior,” Boylan said.
Another thing the Highlanders connected with was the jungle setting where Phantom lived in Skull Cave.
“In New Guinean Highland mythology, when people die they tend to stay around the village until everyone they know in life is dead. Then they move up into the high mountains and that’s where The Phantom used to live,” Boylan said.
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This will be a big week for Phantom fans in Sydney.