These lengths of bamboo, finely engraved, are enigmatic objects and were presented to male elders in New Caledonia in the South Pacific on reaching a particular high level of authority. They were also containers, carrying a selection of magical plants that protected the owner. Master engravers, apparently a hereditary group, fasted before starting the work in which they were guided by ancestor spirits. Some of the captivating imagery and geometric patterns appear to have been illustrations and aides-memoires for recounting histories of the ancestors.
This imagery is not only about ancestors, however. Examples in museum collections around the world, all collected between 1850 and 1920, are vivid expressions of the changes under way on the islands. French soldiers parade about, muskets are lined up, ships sail across the surface, and dandies with fine jackets and umbrellas strike poses. In between these sometimes ironic recordings of new features of colonial New Caledonian life, indigenous Kanak traditions continue: fish are netted, Kanak houses stand proudly, and local animals are as much in evidence as the imported horses.
The British Museum acknowledges contemporary cultural perspectives associated with the objects in its collection. Please note: cultural rights may apply to this object.