– photo by Daniela Pachlová
“Sculpting is more than a form of expression for the Kanak people – it’s a way of shaping their identity and place in one of the richest art of Melanesian inhabitants.”
The islands in the South Pacific are known for various tribes and their unique customs and traditions. The fascinating culture of New Caledonia’s Kanak people is no different, who are renowned for their signature wooden sculptures and dance forms.
Kanak people are the indigenous inhabitants of New Caledonia – an overseas territory of France, and make up almost 40% of its total population. The Kanak have been living in this region for over 3000 years. The name ‘Kanak’ is believed to be derived from a Hawaiian phrase “kanaka maoli”, which means ordinary person.
Majority of Kanaks live in clan communities known as ‘tribus’, in New Caledonia’s primary island Grande Terre, as well as on Île des Pins and the Loyalty Islands. Lately, many Kanaks have renounced their traditional life and moved to Noumea in search of better education and job opportunities, but they still maintain strong ties with their clans, and return for holidays, cultural and family celebrations.
Kanak people are known for their wood sculptures, stone and bamboo carvings, bark paintings, weaving and basketwork.
The wooden sculptures can resemble anything from spirits and ancient gods to hawks, serpents and turtles. If you visit the hut of a Kanak clan chief, you will notice that its roof has a carved wooden spire, known as fleche faitiere, which represent ancestral spirits. For the Kanak people, this is the most important sculpture of their tradition and is also found on the official flag of New Caledonia.
The major stone artefact of Kanak people is the ceremonial axe – which represents the strength and power of a clan. The bottom of the handle is embellished with stones and shells, and represents the clan. The axe is either used in a battle or during the traditional Kanak dance of pilou to show respect to ancestors.
The world discovered Kanak art and sculpture only after the establishment of the Agency for the Development of Kanak Culture (ADCK) – an administrative agency to preserve and promote Kanak culture.
There are numerous sculptures scattered around New Caledonia’s islands like Grande Terre and Île des Pins, but ADCK headquarter Tjibaou Cultural Center is the best place to see them and learn more about the indigenous culture of Kanak people. Located in New Caledonia’s capital Noumea, the architecture of this cultural center features a fascinating blend of traditional Kanak and modern international design.
Other than that, St Maurice Bay in Île des Pins island puts on a great exhibition of carved wooden totems that were made by the island’s various clans. These totems surround the statue of St Maurice in the town of Vao, to protect the saint from the outside world.
Today, the wooden sculptures of Kanak people are an essential part of New Caledonia’s cultural wealth. You can buy traditional wooden sculptures as well as soapstone carvings as souvenirs from roadside stalls in the capital Noumea and other towns.
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