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Kanak Mask, New Caledonia, 18th – Early 19th Century

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Collection No. TB-22
Size 52 cm
Kanak Mask, New Caledonia, 18th – Early 19th Century
Kanak Mask, New Caledonia, 18th – Early 19th Century
Kanak Mask, New Caledonia, 18th – Early 19th Century

A Superb Water Spirit Mask or ‘Apuema’ Central Grande Terre Island, New Caledonia 18th – Early 19th Century.

Height: 52cm

Ex Collection: Cornelius Pieter Meulendijk, Rotterdam (1912 – 1979 )

Exhibited: The Museum Voor Land en Volkerkunde , Rotterdam 1965 No. 387

Exhibited:  Pacific Art from The Tjibou Cultural Centre at The SH Erving Gallery Sydney July – August 2000

Published Ex Christies London, October 21, 1980, Lot 274

Published: The Oceanic Arts Society: Collectors Exhibition July 1998 Page 19

This Mask often referred to as a water spirit, is associated with funerary rituals. In New Caledonia, 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 masks were 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 some spears.

  1. Mack (ed.), Masks: the art of expression (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)
  2. 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



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