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World of the dead
This mask from New Caledonia is said to represent a chief. It is adorned with hair, probably from the men mourning the chief's death. In the north of New Caledonia, a chief's mourners wore masks such as this during his mortuary ceremony. The performer wore the mask high—looking out from the mask's mouth, rather than the eyes—covered with a cloak made of black feathers. He was suppose to hit out at the assembled people with clubs. The symbolism of the mask made connections with the underwater world of the dead and its acting performance was supposed to underline the chief's abiding power.
The face of this mask is of carved wood, stained black. The eyes are generally closed—the wearer would see through the open mouth. The nose is typically beak-like. The mask is topped with human hair, also used to form the beard. The hair of male mourners was used for this; they grew it long, and cut it after the period of mourning. At the back of the head is a band of plaited vegetable fiber, similar in construction to the hat worn by men of high rank. A long cloak of black notou (pigeon) feathers, probably attached to netting, would have hung from this, covering the body of the wearer. The wearer carried a club and spears.
These kind of masks were first recorded by the French explorer Jacques-J.H. de Labillardiere in 1792. When missionaries met the Kanaks, they thought the masks were representations of devils and tried to stop their use. As a result, few were made after French colonization in 1853. Recently, people have been including these masks in mourning rituals as part of a resurgence of Kanak traditional practices. The mask has also been incorporated into local Christian practice. Masks were used in the north and central part of New Caledonia at the time of European contact, by which time their use had diminished in the south.
There is some uncertainty about the original role of such masks. They have been associated with gods and spirits, in particular an evil water spirit. They symbolize the power of the community leader: a mask was given to the leader when he attained this rank. Masks were worn as part of the mourning rituals performed for a dead leader, and were regarded as a substitute for him in the ceremony.
R. Boulay, "New Caledonia traditional Kanak art," Arts of the South Seas: (Prestel Verlag, 1999), pp. 298-302.
J. Mack (ed.), Masks: the art of expression (London, The British Museum Press, 1994).
J.A. McKesson, "In search of the origins of the New Caledonian mask," Art and identity in Oceania (Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1990), pp. 84-92.
© Rada Powiernicza British Museum