Date: mid to late 19th century
Geography: New Caledonia, Grande Terre
Culture: Kanak people
Medium: Wood, paint
Dimensions: H. 20 3/4 x W. 5 1/4 x D. 7 1/4 in. (52.7 x 13.3 x 18.4 cm)
Credit Line: The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Mary R. Morgan Gift; Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller and Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, by exchange, 1983
Accession Number: 1983.17
The peoples of New Caledonia, who today refer to themselves as Kanaks and their homeland as Kanaky, formerly created several types of masks. Produced throughout the main island of Grande Terre (with the exception of the southeastern tip) as well as on the neighboring Loyalty Islands, Kanak masks occur in a number of regional styles. With its deeply sculpted features and prominent bulbous nose, this work embodies the classical style of mid- to late nineteenth-century masks from the northern region of Grande Terre. Like all Kanak masks, the eyes are not pierced and the wearer looked out through the mouth, depicted in an aggressive, toothsome grin.
Masks were originally worn as the centerpieces of elaborate costumes, which concealed the wearer's identity. When in use, the triangular portion above the eyebrows in this work would have been covered by an elaborate headdress consisting of a broad band of plaited fiber surmounted by a globular wig of hair. A beard of hair or fiber would have been attached through the holes in the chin. To complete the costume, a fiber cloak adorned with the black and brown feathers of the notou, a large dove, covered the wearer's body down to the knees.
Masks in northern Grande Terre appear to have been associated with the lives and authority of chiefs, who wore them at important gatherings. Clad in the elaborate mask and costume, the chief brandished a spear and other weapons, with which he ceremonially threatened the surrounding crowd. Masks were also used in the mourning rites of chiefs in which masked dancers appeared as substitutes for the deceased.