1. Overlay of a door - 19th century - Tibarama (Poindimié)
[a letter to my friends that are close to my heart but far away, I wish we could have visited this together. Paragraphs in italic are my words,
Emmanuel Kasarhérou, Head of the Overseas Section at the musée du quai Branly, Chief Heritage Curator and former Director of the ADCK and the Tjibaou Cultural Centre in New Caledonia.
Roger Boulay, ethnologist and specialist in Kanak heritage.
they were written by the Kanak themselves. This is why I loved it, because it was from their point of view, because finally we could learn history from the point of view of natives. I wish history programs at school were more like this]
Dear Aoi, dear Kris, dear Rebecca, dear Ellen, dear friends, I long wanted to write you a letter about this exhibition. I spent almost 4 hours with my friend Cécile exploring the alleys and immersing myself in this beautiful and deeply inspiring world, being amazed by the magical objects. Here is why: I won’t tell much but let you, as I was: not knowing anything at first, a complete discovery of beauty but also of a strong and heartbreaking history, please follow my path:
2.Ceremonial pole - Late 19th century - Grande Terre
3. Headdress of a chef - 19th century - dolium shell, olive shell, hairs of flying fox bat
4. Coins - 19th century - Houaïlou
Text from the exhibition: The sculptures of the Great hut
The interior decoration of the edifice consists of several sculpted elements and includes the posts surrounding the hut, the interior wall posts, the mezzanine floorboards and, in certain cases, the central pole. These are offered by the lineages to exalt their Elder.
The exterior ornamentation, the wall posts around the door and the sculpture of the ridgepole express the glory of the occupant. The wall posts stabilize the materials used to construct the wall. They depict a deceased person whose head emerges from a plaited rug which serves as a shroud. The wall posts can also be used it support the sculpted lintels.
The house is topped by a sculpted rooftop spear.
These sculptures were destroyed or at the very least, disfigured, during the mourning rituals. Axe strokes, sling-bullet impacts and – more recently – shotgun shell impacts express the anger experienced by the deceased person’s fellow clan members against those who had failed to preserve the life of the person who had been entrusted to them through alliance. This practice is called jedoo and explains why many if rooftops spears or wall posts with faces that have been mutilated.
Text from the exhibition: The planted sculpture
Planted sculptures are always anthropomorphic and installed in the access areas of th Great huts, courtyards and alleys. They most probably accompanied the offerings presented during ceremonies that took place in the alleys. Their significance differs to that of the rooftop spears and the pole that bar the access to the sacred sites. It is likely that they find their origin in an antique tradition a most of the figures are depicted wearing attributes from the ancient kanak world. These include headwear, shell ornaments, penis shafts and necklaces that carry protective plants. Some might be linked to the representation of mythical heroes.
This production seems to have continued throughout the centuries as we have examples of figures which mix traditional attributes with colonial hats and caps.
Text from the exhibition: From condescension to the imagery of humiliation
Imagery of the Kanak figure was systematically exploited by the colonist regime to establish and reinforce its authority. Colonial literature, world fairs, cabaret song books, post cards and exotic photographs were part of a vast propaganda enterprise to promote France’s establishment in the Pacific.
Certain exceptions reveal a more scientific, objective, curious or even respectful manner of viewing the kanak population. This is notably the case with Louise Michel. Her efforts to understand the indigenous world and her treatment of the kanak children are unique amongst the deported Communards who generally sided with the repressive forces during the revolution of 1878.
13. The ten "Inhabitants of the canaque village" from l'Esplanade des Invalides, in semi formal dress, 1889 - Prince Roland Bonaparte, print of an original photographic plate.
Text from the exhibition: Studios and postcards
The photographers Ernest Robin (1844-1904)and the Dufty brothers settled in New Caledonia as early as 1966 and were followed by Allan Hughan (1834-1883) in 1873.
Their photographs, which spontaneously capture the moment, did not prove to be popular. They thus accepted administrative positions and established their studios in Nouméa. During large gatherings and notably on the occasion of the 14th of July, the kanaks posed in their studios wearing traditional dress.
Thirty years later, the negatives were used for postcards to diffuse imagery of “cannibalistic warriors” and other “man-eaters”, in line with the vision constructed by the west.
The postcards, created at the end of the 19th century, rapidly became a universal support for the diffusion of photographed images. It is the contemporary of the world fair and the exotic pictures of these manifestations were greatly appreciated. It enjoyed an intensive rate of production up until 1914.
This is also why this exhibition is particularly interesting, I think. It is rare to have such an accurate and critical point of view from one’s country history. The example of the postcards is such a good example of how a mass produced media can become de medium of the diffusion of clichés and racist imagery. Photos that were not taken on the purpose to be sold are used years after for a commercial and ideological intent to perpetuate the racist cliché of an exotic man-eater savage… A completely false image that surely helped in building the roots of today’s racism.
14. Post card: Cousins of the universal expositions,
where countless exotic versions of these were very popular, the postcard was
the support of a strong industry. Photographers, who practiced in the studio,
were the main providers of these images close to the exotic bazaar, always more
concerned with the fantastic representation of their European customers than
for en ethnographic accuracy. They proposed fierce warriors and other
cannibals, since these were the images that excited the letter’s writers. So we
could observe a multitude of cannibalism scenes or portraits of Kanak women really
disadvantaged compared to the Polynesian Venus. The Polynesian paradise was a t
his time opposed to the Kanak, supposed to be the henchmen of infernal beings.
Text from the exhibition: The need for strong images to support colonization
Like elsewhere, the colonization of New Caledonia was enacted within a highly ideological sphere rooted in stereotypes that served to legitimize imperial intervention and possession. A negative and insulting imagery was diffused throughout French society, a is illustrated by the photographs taken in fanciful studios and the postcards brandished with tantalizing titles.
The caricatures that accompanied the birth of evolutionism also provided an imagery that was used to support the notion of a higher race and the necessity of its preservation and propagation. The Kanak, by virtue of his cruelty and idolatry, became the embodiment of one of the lowest forms of the human species.
The strongest image to be exploited is that of the cannibal. Man-eating practices were reported in the kanak world early as 1793 by A. D’Entrecasteaux and were constantly evoked from then on. Though this practice does exist in Oceania, it is not evenly spread throughout the region and must be considered within the context of the complex significations it carries. It is a means of consuming both ancestral powers (endocannibalism) as well as the humiliation suffered by a deceased enemy, who as a consequence of his defeat is refused a burial place and thus access to the ancestral world.
This practice, often rare and limited, has nothing in common with the colonial imagery that was developed and which depicted atrocious orgies justifying the forcible taking of land and repetitive acts of vengeance.
16.Theater of voyages and news - 19th century - Table 10: "Oceania, a Kanak village. He takes the Canadian Pacific embarks to land on New Caledonia, he ventured into a native village where the natives seized him»
Now this is my favourite part of the exhibition. You may know it by now, I am fascinated with all the rituals men invented to explain and pay homage to the ancestors, I love when it is about death, dreams and afterlife worlds.(All kind of the same idea in my mind, semi-death, death, etc.)
Text from the exhibition: Our ancestors and our spirits
Pâ bèmu-vé, our Ancestors were the flesh of our clan. They belong of our clan. They belong to the community of the dead who have left this world but who are not completely absent from it.
The rhee, a spirit, is not human and is therefore not an ancestor, but it exerts a protective and benevolent influence over the clan. It finds its origin in the power of nature and can take the form of different animals, of magnificent creatures or atmospheric phenomena such as thunder.
Rituals such as the acts of custom renew and reaffirm the links that are forged between us.
Ancestors and spirits are invoked through anthropomorphic statues and magic parcels that are made mostly from plants. The disturbing force of the masks used during rituals express the fact that the spirits and the deceased are eternally present amongst the living.
The beneficial power conserved in the war stones received from the ancestors is transmitted when these come into contact with weapons, bludgeons and assegais.
Text from the exhibition: Dreams
Dreams constitute a privileged moment during which the spirit enters into contact with the Ancestors. “Dreaming boards” usually made from planks of sculpted wood, are fixed horizontally inside the Great huts and are used both as shelf and mezzanine. They were used to store important objects such as the money basket tapa or weapons inside the hot and smoky huts. Situated at in intermediary distance between the floor and the ridgepole they also constituted the ideal place for certain appointed people to communicate with the Ancestors or with the tutelary authority through the mode of dream.
17. Mezzanine board for divinatory dream - Kereduru (Canala)
Text from the exhibition: Ancestral power
The Ancestors are designated by words that signify “old” or “the great men”. They dominate mankind and protect it by virtue of their great stature. These deceased men have left this world but are not completely absent from it. Their physical presence is forever lost, but they continue to exist in an underwater paradise and their spirit roams the land of the living and allows their descendants to feel their benevolent presence.
Certain men possessed specific virtues. Strong and attentive mourners present at the time of their death lie in wait for the moment when their spirit leaves their body to seize it and plunge it into water. The spirit materializes itself in the form of a stone thereby fossilizing a portion of its power. These ancestors are consequently deified.
Text from the exhibition: Magic parcels
Magic parcels are used to protect and invoke. They contain plants and objects which symbolise their specific function. Small parcels are worn around the neck, the calf or are tied to other objects. Antique statues nearly always represent figures with small parcels of personal protection around their necks. Most contain “totemic” plants in reference to tutelary powers.
The larger parcels are used to protect the group or to obtain the necessary powers to accomplish specific tasks such as fishing specific specimens of fish.
These parcels are not to be opened. By enveloping the objects, the desired powers are hidden from sight and therefore stored in a concentrated form.
18. Magic parcel - 19th century - Tapa bast of beaten bark, drawstring made of flying fox bat hairs, vegetable fibers, bones of flying-fox bat
19. Magic parcel - 19th century - Bark, drawstring made of flying fox bat hairs, red wool, vegetable fibers.
Package filled with herbs or pieces of various objects related to fishing and intended to help being successful in the turtle fishing.
Text from the exhibition: Masks
The kanak mask is a costume that hides the entire body leaving only the arms and the lower legs visible. It is made of wood and takes the form of a sculpted face with a carved open mouth that enable the wearer to see. It is surmounted by a dome and decorated with a beard made from human hair. The dome is placed above a plaited tidi, headwear that cover the cack of the neck.
The masks were made in part from the hair of those who had looked after the deceased body during the different stages of mourning. The tradition requires that the hair should be left to grow throughout this entire period. The mourners tie their mass of hair using a head-wear made initially out of tapa and then later out of European fabric.
An ample costume made from feathers attached to a net covers the body and enables greater ease of movement than the mask which restricts both the torso and the head.
The costume is worn during festive dances or pantomimes and takes on either a terrifying or an amusing aspect depending upon the circumstances, location and time of year. The wearer often carries a lance and bludgeon.
These masks were previously present in the north and central regions of the Great Land. They were totally absent from the southern parts and Loyalty Islands.
21. Mask from the early 19th century
Text from the exhibition: The person and their links
Today, Kâmö designates the person. Originally the term designated the different forms of all living beings: human, animal and vegetal. The ancients did not distinguish man from other living beings. They considered human beings as one of the components within the continuum of life. Today, the influence of the west leads us to distinguish man from other life forms (animal, vegetal and mineral).
Equally, the human parson is inseparable from the clan to which they belong. Social ties, inherited through birth and contracted through marriage, enable a person to establish familiar and permanent links with others. Kinship is one of the greatest riches that we can receive and transmit for it is the necessary condition for the vibe alliance, that has no beginning or end but which proliferates with each generation.
Coins, tapas and personal precious ornament such as jade necklaces, bracelets and shells are freely presented to visitors and their circulation expresses the vital flux of mutual offering.
The individual is judged to be greater for what he gives rather than for what he receives as it is through giving that he maintains the alliance and the circle of life.
24. Coins with case and clasp - Late 19th century - Pondimié
The part I loved about this exhibition is also
that we could see contemporary art, beautiful and deeply meaningful
propositions by today’s kanak artists. Stéphanie Wamytan’s Dresses of
liberation was my favourite:
Text from the exhibition: Stéphanie Wamytan’s “dresses of liberation”
Throughout the Pacific, missionaries worked to abolish nudity, believed to be a terrestrial expression of Satan’s influence. The fibre skirts that barely veiled the body were replaced by sac-like robes which, for more coquettish women, were fitted with a band of material that covered the upper part of the bust. Father Lambert affirmed that “the missionaries could not leave the indigenous in the state of nudity in which they had found them”.
The history of the kanak missionary robes is captivating. Originally symbols of submission, they have become expressions of the contemporary kanak identity and are even used as flags when their motifs reproduce those of the kanak flag.
Stéphanie Wamytan goes even further in this process of reappropriation. She designs missionary robes with erotic motifs which she calls her “dresses of liberation”.