I was lucky enough to be in New Caledonia to catch an exhibition which had just opened there "Kanak L'Art est une Parole". The idea started up as a collaboration between Paris and New Caledonia and the result is that more than 160 pieces of original Kanak Art are displayed in the Centre Culturel Tjibaou. The Cultural Centre was modelled on the Kanak Great Houses and is quite a landmark on a hill.
If you are anywhere near, make the trip. It is well worth it and will be on until the 15th of June.
The Kanaks are the indigenous Melanesians inhabiting these islands. Their exact origins are unknown but they constitute about 40 % of the population and they have endured many hardships, disease and dissemination. They fought as French soldiers but also for their independence.Two leaders who signed the Matignon Accord in 1988 were assassinated - one of them was Jean Marie Tjibaou in whose honour the Cultural Centre was built and which currently houses the exhibition. Another accord the Noumea Accord has given them a degree of autonomy with the promise of a referendum for independence from France in the next four years.
The Centre Culurel of TjibaouKanaks have many customs and beliefs involving the sea, their ancestors and gift sharing and exchange. A lot of them are now Christians so it is important to see their art, and their customs given prominence and care.Efforts are also being made to preserve their many many languages, 28 in all, which are apparently mutually incomprehensible and often based on oral tradition.
For me the most impressive pieces were the ceremonial jade axes which often resembled the sun. They were honed and sharpened in the sand. Akin to them are the war clubs - often phallic and bird like.
The Great Huts were their chieftains houses which were built with huge care, involving many months of painstaking work.
The pillars or posts are often carved intricately with patterns and masks.The most incredible however are the masks which the men wore after a mourning period for a Chief was over. Elaborately carved with fantastic powerful faces they also have a mass of real hair in bouffant hairdos which take some making. The masks are worn by men who can only see out through the slit of the mouth.