Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

New Caledonia

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New Caledonia is a group of islands located approximately 1,500 kilometers northeast of Australia. The major islands are the large island of Grande Terre, the Isle of Pines, and the Loyalty Islands. New Caledonia is an overseas territory of France, with an indigenous population of around 85,000 people, known collectively as the Kanak.


Kanak art has traditionally focused on propagating the status and importance of high-ranking chiefs. Each village is ruled by one chief, and he is glorified not only for his political authority, but also for his connection to the ancestral spirits, or duéé.


In the past, the chief's house, a circular building built around a central post and situated at the end of a broad avenue, was richly decorated with ornamentation that referenced his ancestral lineage. The single entrance of the house was flanked on either side by a male-female pair of carved door jambs (1979.206.1758-9). These massive planklike images represented two ancestors with only their heads exposed and wrapped in woven funerary mats. Tradition dictated that only the heads of ancestors should be represented in art, since this was how they revealed themselves to the living. The gender of the ancestor was indicated by the pattern on the band above the eyes. Male ancestors had a series of vertical lines, whereas female ancestors had a series of slanted lines. These door jambs were meant to symbolize the reemergence of the ancestors into the community.


The roof finial (1979.206.1451) was a structural element placed at the top of the chief's house, specifically at the apex of the conical thatched roof. Carved from a single piece of wood, it represented an ancestor from the clan of the chief's mother. Upon the chief's death, this finial would have been removed and placed on his burial mound.


Chiefs also possessed a variety of prestige objects that were used during the course of their lifetimes. These include ceremonial axes made of greenstone that were used as ritual gifts of exchange. Greenstone, a precious material reserved for the elite, was found in the south and center of the island of Grande Terre. Bird-head clubs (2000.160.9) were also used as ceremonial money and displayed as symbols of power.


Wooden masks from New Caledonia (1983.17) were traditionally used as part of funerary ceremonies for chiefs. These masks are most often associated with the powerful god Gomawe, and are characterized by their black patina and prominent noses. Depending on the region from which the mask originated, there are two main types of noses: a flatter, broader nose, and a protruding, curved nose (sometimes referred to as the "beak style"). In its complete form, the mask would have been adorned with a beard of human hair and a headdress surmounted by a mass of human hair cut from the heads of mourners. The masquerader was able to see through the crescent-shaped mouth, and usually wore a cloak made of pigeon feathers. The mask itself was painted black, which was the color applied to the bodies of mourners and symbolic of the roads leading to the land of the dead.

Emily Caglayan, Ph.D.
Department of Art History, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Map of the southwest Pacific showing New Caledonia and adjacent island groups.