British Museum

British Museum

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.

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  • Title: Mask
  • Date Created: 1853/1853
  • Physical Dimensions: Height: 66.00cm; Width: 45.00cm; Depth: 36.00cm; Width: 74.20cm (crate); Height: 74.90cm (crate); Depth: 45.90cm (crate)
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: plaited; bound; carved
  • Registration number: Oc1954,06.260
  • Production place: Made in New Caledonia
  • Place: Found/Acquired New Caledonia
  • Peoples: Made by Kanak
  • Other information: Cultural rights may apply.
  • Material: wood; bamboo; bark; fibre; feather; human hair
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: Donated by Wellcome Historical Medical Museum


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