19th–early 20th century
Wood, cane, cord, bark cloth, trade cloth, yarn, human hair, metal, fern fiber, grass, and shells
Overall: 38 x 11 1/4 x 14 7/8 in. (96.52 x 28.57 x 37.78 cm)
Arts of the Pacific Islands
Arts of the Pacific Islands - Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, Level 3
Dallas Museum of Art, The Roberta Coke Camp Fund

General Description

Kanak masks of this type occur in a number of regional styles and are carved with two main types of noses: a flat, broad nose and a protruding, beaklike nose. The eyes of the masks are not pierced—the wearer looked out through the open mouth—and are stained black. The black color was obtained through the roasting and crushing of candlenuts. Atop the carved face of the mask is a basketry helmet, like that traditionally worn by high-ranking elders, surmounted by a wig of human hair cut from men who had performed funerary rituals for the chief. The beard of the mask is made of layered hair, grass, and plant fibers accented with shell pendants. The mask was worn with a cloak of brown and black pigeon feathers that concealed the wearer's body. Presumably worn by elders, Kanak masks have been described variously as components of secret societies, ceremonies related to social control, dances prior to warfare, and funerary ceremonies for chiefs.

The mask possibly represents the powerful god Gomawe, master of the realm of the dead, and who, according to some beliefs, is said to have formed human beings from clay and water when the earth appeared above water. However, an explanation for the characteristic beaklike nose occurs in a myth about a culture hero named Azyu, whose steadily increasingly power attracted the hostility of envious rivals. When his enemies eventually killed him, they tore off his nose and extracted his tongue. Azyu's mother tried to restore him to life, but the hero, disgusted by his appearance, refused and traveled to the land of the dead. There he made a mask with an enormous nose representing the one he had lost, which he sent back to New Caledonia.

Drawn from

  • DMA Label text.

  • R. Boulay, "New Caledonia traditional Kanak art," Arts of the South Seas: (Prestel Verlag, 1999), 298-302.

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