Kanak people, Central Grande Terre Island, New Caledonia
Water spirit or Costume mask mid 19th century

Masks are a very important part of Melanesian culture and in many ways are dramatic symbols of different Pacific Islander cultures. Masks often vary in appearance, function and fundamental meaning but are almost invariably associated with ceremonies that have spiritual, religious and social significance, often being concerned with funerary customs, fertility rites or curing sickness. In most Melanesian countries, masks are still being made and used in festivals to impersonate ancestors in dra-matic performances or to re-enact ancestral events.

In November 2009 the National Gallery of Victoria acquired a rare costume mask from New Caledonia. This overseas territory and colony of France, located approximately 1500 kilometres north-east of Australia, is made up of groups of islands; the three major ones being Grande Terre, Isle of Pines and Loyalty Island. Its indigenous people are Melanesians, collectively known as Kanaks, who refer to their homeland as Kanaky. Kanak arts once focused on endowing status and importance to high-ranking chiefs. These important chiefs became powerful rulers who were honoured for their political authority and connection to the ancestral spirits and supported by the rest of the community.

At the time of European contact, Kanak costume masks, which are no longer made today, were used in north and central parts of New Caledonia but were almost non-existent in the south. Found throughout the northern region of Grande Terre and the neighbouring Loyalty Island, costume masks similar to this one were characterised by two main features: their black patina and two types of prominent proboscis — a protruding, bulbous or beak-style nose or a flatter, broader nose. They were used in the mourning rites of chiefs, in which dancers appeared as substitutes for the deceased.

The mask comprises three main sections: face, headdress and cloak. The face, representing a human form, is carved from niaouli wood (melaleuca) and painted with burnt and crushed candle nuts (Aleurites moluccanna). Beneath its closed eyes, a protruding beak-like nose extends downwards, almost reaching its mouth. The rest of the face is completed with a beard attached to the pierced holes around the chin, the triangular portion about the eyebrows being covered with hair. The beard and headdress are made from braided fibre surmounted by human hair cut from the heads of male mourners. Those in mourning would have let their hair grow for the duration of a grieving period of up to three years. When cut, the hair would be displayed in the dome of the mask, made from woven liana that represents the deceased. In its complete form, a fibre cloak adorned with black and brown dove feathers is added, extending to cover the wearer’s knees. As the centre piece of the costume, it conceals identity during performances; the wearer would only be able to see through its open mouth.

Sana Balai, Assistant Curator, Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2011).