In Eric Bridgeman’s latest solo exhibition ‘KALA BÜNG (Colours join together)’, the artist presents a new installation of ‘shield paintings’, text pieces and photographic portraits taken in Papua New Guinea (PNG). The body of work has been brewing for some time, with his initial drawings and wheelbarrow works from 2010 to the paintings on timber and canvas that were first created in 2016.
Last year he spent time with men from his close and extended family to discuss the legacy, and future potential of the kuman (shield). Bridgeman received the blessing of his clan leaders to research, design and fabricate his shield painting works because of his inherited position, being the grandson of the late Muka Gelua of Omdara, a chief and esteemed marksman. Bridgeman exists in a synchronous space; he possesses two names – with his Papua New Guinean given name Yuriyal Awari Muka and Eric Bridgeman, his Anglo-Saxon name. Bridgeman introduces himself through his paternal (English) and maternal lines (Papua New Guinea Highlands). Acknowledging family ties is central to how he approaches art making.
Traditionally, the shields are tied to notions of lineage, culturally and through motifs, designs and colours which express clan, identity and complex narratives. They are rich in geometrical composition and colour, and functioned as both optical distractions and insignia. It is impossible to engage with an art practice steeped in cultural tradition without considering what is maintained and what is changed.
The group chose to use plywood as a more efficient material, over traditional heavy timber. In doing so, they immediately transformed the function. In addition the new shield paintings hold designs that reflect personal stories, events, pop culture, politics or references to places. Bold in design and principle the objects and documentation that came from this process disrupt the ‘narrative of violence’ from past conflict to today’s culture of hyper-masculinity. There’s an obvious link between sport and violence in contemporary life, and as such Bridgeman deploys the ‘team colours’ and visual motifs of rugby in these works. The artist is not shy of dualities, noting that ‘protection and danger; tribal warfare and brotherly love; sorcery and healing; and the living, the dying and the dead’ are all closely linked in these pieces. These contemporary iterations are a visual representation of the collaboration that took place between the men in Bridgeman’s clubhouse, or haus man.
Bridgeman’s approach makes us think of the shields as a conduit to a community or self-reflective experience, instead of a barrier.
Natasha Matila-Smith is an artist and writer based in Tāmaki Makaurau.
Andrew Baker Art Dealer