This carved wooden mask is iconic of the traditional Kanak cultures of New Caledonia. Masks from these cultures all have a gleaming black patina and the greatest examples, from northern New Caledonia, sport a prominent hooked nose, as this one does. Its deeply sculpted features have a remarkable roundedness of form, giving the mask a distinctive welcoming personality offset by the grimace of the mouth.
This type of mask was first recorded in 1792, but very little knowledge of their indigenous context remains today as many were destroyed, along with their customary use, by early French missionaries and colonial administrators, and only a very few have been produced since the 1850s.
The mask would have been worn at certain events by a chief during his lifetime and then, after the chief’s death, by a performer representing the chief mourning at his own mortuary ceremony. The black colour is symbolic of the passage to the underwater world of the dead and is the colour mourners paint themselves for the ceremony. However, these masks were not solely considered funerary objects, they were also connected to other events such as a traditional money ritual.
Performers who wore them were covered by a cloak of dark pigeon feathers while brandishing a spear or special club. The triangular section above the mask’s face supported a giant mass of human hair, which was bundled above and along the lower edge of the mask, forming a beard of dreadlocks. The wearer underneath all this hair and feathers was able to see only though the toothed mouth.
New Caledonia is the area of Melanesia least represented in the national art collection; however, this recent acquisition is the finest of the small handful of exceptionally rare Kanak masks in Australian collections.
Crispin Howarth, Curator of Pacific Arts
in artonview, issue 80, Summer 2014