Polynesian objects from early European exploration, £19.99
Height: 66.000 cm
Gift of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum
Africa, Oceania, Americas
From New Caledonia, Melanesia, possibly 19th or early 20th century AD
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.
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 fibre, 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 some spears.
J. Mack (ed.), Masks: the art of expression (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)
R. Boulay, 'New Caledonia traditional Kanak art' in Arts of the South Seas: the -1 (Prestel Verlag, 1999), pp. 298-302
J.A. McKesson, 'In search of the origins of the New Caledonian mask' in Art and identity in Oceania (Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1990), pp. 84-92