Eric Bridgeman: Sides of the Shield

Eric Bridgeman’s latest works traverse the boundaries of conventional canvas painting, rendered on both sides of Wahgi shields.

Words: Tai Mitsuji

Eric Bridgeman splits his life between Brisbane and the Wahgi Valley in Papua New Guinea. “My life is fixed between here and there; I try and balance individual practice against group work in the village,” he explains. “In a way, I straddle both of these worlds.” It is perhaps unsurprising then, that the itinerant artist’s latest series of paintings for Sydney Contemporary, Skuat Pasin (Team Spirit), similarly traverses the boundaries of conventional canvas painting. Rather than simply present- ing a painting on a single plane, his artworks are rendered on both the front and back of Wahgi shields. “I’ve begun to think of them as more than just paintings, they’re three-dimensional bodies,” Bridgeman observes. “People have gone up to the work and moved them around to see what is on the back, and I like that, because I wasn’t really wanting to paint paintings for a wall. These are bodies that you can walk around.”

Bridgeman’s paintings, in both their content and form, function like some- thing akin to a portrait. “The shields are traditionally made by one person and are for one person, so they have this element of identity imprinted onto the designs,” explains the artist. “All of my cousins, for example, have these really unique designs that they’ve made for themselves.” The works manage to manifest some essential element of the individual artist while also responding to the contours of the cultural tradition. “In my clan it is the only kind of art object of importance that men have,” Bridgeman responds when I ask him about the significance of the shield. “It’s something that connects me to my grandfather and his great grandfather.”

But for the artist, his works are more than just a connection to personal history – they represent a collective opportunity. “People are realising the potential of the shield to become something more than an object of war,” he says. “People are beginning to see its richness as a creative and expressive thing and are starting to see its potential beyond its violent history.”

Despite the boldness of his rich and colourful work, Bridgeman speaks with a self-aware humbleness. “I’m not a trained painter, I sort of work at it,” he candidly explains. “I actually never really thought I’d be painting as much as I am.” Although he has enjoyed great success with his paintings, which occupied a significant area at Carriageworks in this year’s iteration of The National, Bridgeman describes himself as a photographer first.

Indeed, while shields of the Wahgi Valley have featured in Bridgeman’s work before, they were a subject captured by the click of his camera rather than an object painted by the movement of his hand. “I only started [painting the shields] last year, but for maybe 10 or so years we’ve been discussing them up in [Papua] New Guinea,” he recalls. As someone relatively new to the practice, one can detect a hint of hesitation in Bridgeman’s voice – yet there is also strength. “I feel like I can do this because it is hereditarily part of me, and it doesn’t have to be like any other painting that I’ve seen.”

Image: Eric Bridgeman, Highway Büng Valley (Captain Smith), 2019, back view. Enamel, ply, timber, rope, 60x120x5cm. COURTESY: THE ARTIST AND GALLERYSMITH, MELBOURNE.

This article was originally published in Sydney Contemporary Special Edition Art Collector, 2019. 

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