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Kanak New Caledonia
Roof spire probably 19th century Place made: New Caledonia Melanesia
Materials & Technique: sculptures, wood, black dye wood, paint, ochre
Dimensions: height 310.0 h cm ; weight 129 kg
Accession No: NGA 2010.1366
  • Private collection
  • Alain Schoffel, France
  • Robert Burawoy, Paris
  • Antony Moris, Paris

This roof spire was created to represent the face of an ancestral spirit and to stand for the community of departed spirits. When centrally placed on top of the house of the village chief, the spire represented the core of the village, its ancestral roots. The face in the centre of the spire is startling, a remarkable solution to the problem of producing an unforgettable image. Its head is flattened, extended laterally, with remarkably piercing eyes.

Sweeping up from each side of the mouth is the black painted beard, bisected by a very long pointed tongue. Why the tongue? In other parts of the Pacific, images of beings were created with distinctively long tongues. One of these was an image created to placate an extremely hungry spirit, one that demanded sacrifice on a regular basis. If his people forgot to leave food out for him, or forgot to make the appropriate sacrifice, his anger was uncontainable and the crops would begin to fail.

Did this spire represent such a spirit? At the time of its making in the early nineteenth century, ancestors held a strong position among the living. People understood that their ancestors demanded respect, and a beautifully constructed spire was one of the ways in which a chief could show his ancestors that he cared for them, that he loved them, and that they should love him and, by extension, love his people.

Michael Gunn, Senior Curator, Pacific Arts

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014