Sculpture from La Grande Terre

By: William H. Davenport

Originally Published in 1964

View PDF

From April 10 to May 31, 1964 the University Museum presented an exhibition of sculpture and other objects from the South Sea island of New Caledonia, or La Grande Terre as it is often called by the French under whose administration it lies. No longer produced, this distinctive art is not so well represented in museums and private collections in the United States as it is in Europe. The University Museum’s exhibition of “New Caledonian Art” was probably the largest ever displayed in the country. The pieces shown were assembled from the impressive collection of New Caledonian sculpture owned by the Philadelphia Commercial Museum, some of which are now on permanent loan to the University Museum, augmented by pieces from the University Museum’s own small but splendid collection of ethnological material from the island, and by one piece lent by the Robert H. Lowie Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley.

As its French name suggests, La Grande Terre is one of the largest islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean. It is also the southernmost and terminal island in the chain of groups extending southeastward from New Guinea that is collectively termed Melanesia. The peoples of Melanesia are diverse in race, language, and culture. For the most part they are dark-skinned, hence the name of the region, Melanesia, meaning “Black Islands.” More than 200 different languages are spoken in Melanesia, and perhaps half that many distinctive primitive cultures and subcultures can be identified in the region. Melanesian peoples everywhere produce remarkable objects which, by some contemporary Western aesthetic standards, are judged to have significant artistic import, even merit. Along with western Africa, some parts of the aboriginal Americas, and the Polynesian islands of the central Pacific, Melanesia is one of the fountainheads of ethnographic art, and each of its many societies and cultures possesses its own tradition of artistic expression. The sculpture and allied art forms of La Grande Terre are one of the most distinctive of these once vigorous traditions of primitive art in Oceania.

Twenty to 30 miles wide and over 200 long, La Grande Terre is a complex mass of broken mountains, peaks, and transverse ridges that is much too rugged to be fully occupied and exploited by man, primitive or civilized. Although the island lies well within the southern tropics, except in the uplands it is not nearly so wet and verdant as others in this part of the Pacific. Yet when it was first encountered in 1774 by the great English navigator James Cook, who named it New Caledonia after the ancient name of Scotland, it had a population that has been estimated to have been as great as 100,000. This was an exceptionally large number for a Stone Age people of Oceania. Part of the remarkable success of the NEw Caledonian population was due to their efficient agriculture. As all over Melanesia, the important staple crops were the Oceanic yam (Dioscorea spp.), taro (Colocasia sp., Alocasia sp.), and coconut (Cocos nucifera), but the difference on La Grande Terre was that the many fertile hillsides were extensively terraced and perennial streams fed by rains falling in the uplands were skillfully diverted to irrigate the terraces. By these sophisticated means exceptionally high yields of taro, a highly nutritious, starchy tuber, were produced. The warm, coral-studded seas surrounding La Grande Terre and its smaller off-lying islands are also richly supplied with fish and shell fish, so in spite of the fact that the land provided no large game and all important domesticated animals were absent, the ancient population had an abundant supply of animal proteins. Appropriately, the pagan religion of old New Caledonia was strongly oriented toward maintaining fertility of the land and abundance in the surrounding seas.

The people of La Grande Terre and its satellite islands directly to the north and south, as well as the kindred societies of the Loyalty Islands to the east, lived in villages built in valley bottoms or upon the narrow discontinuous coastal plains. There was virtually no political unity among the many discrete settlements. Each village or loose aggregate of adjacent villages was fully independent and often even hostile toward the next. Because of the broken terrain of the island, communication and social interchange among settlements were frequently more intensive and closer across the island through mountain passes than, as is more often the situation on large islands, along the coasts. Communities across from one another on opposite coasts were often more alike culturally and linguistically to each other than were communities and districts next to each other on the same side. Thus, aboriginal La Grande Terre tended to be transversely striated into areas of similarity with cultural boundaries of dissimilarity along its entire length; the Isle of Pines off the southeastern tip and the Loyalty Islands to the east of the main island formed two additional distinctive and detached cultural zones. Local differences in sculptural styles followed this same trend of linguistic and cultural variability. hence, there is no single art style in the New Caledonian area–rather a series of related local styles.

Sculpture of La Grande Terre was in wood, the representations predominately anthropomorphic. It was carved to symbolize the mystical powers of totemic progenitors, as traced only through the female line of descent, and to commemorate ancestors, as reckoned through the male line of descent and common residence in the same village. It is a deeply religious form of plastic expression. Each village had a part-time specialist sculptor who was informally selected, not on the basis of his technical abilities alone, but because of his particularly sensitive attitude toward and close spiritual relationship with the mystical forces he depicted in sculptured forms.

The universe as native New Caledonians conceived it was sustained by mysterious processes of sexual duality and polarity. Unseen were the feminine forces that provided continuity from the remote past into the projected future. They were symbolized in the natural world by the sea–whence everything originated–rain, moisture, perennial plants, evergreens, and other objects that revealed continuity and perpetuity. As a complement to these were the more tangible masculine forces that were symbolized by the land, dryness, annual plants, people, and other things that manifested transience, periodicity, growth and decline. In order for the invisible feminine forces to produce issue, from time to time they had to be seeded, impregnated, or vivified by complementary masculine forces. Religious rituals were symbolic enactments of bringing masculine and feminine cosmic forces together so the important sectors of both physical and social worlds would be perpetuated and increased. The sculptures were the concrete representations of these unseen forces.

During the 19th century the people of La Grande Terre came into ever increasing contact and often direct conflict with Europeans who coveted the island’s valuable natural resources. New diseases and the introduction of firearms into local fighting drastically reduced the population. Christian missionaries began teaching in 1840; France annexed the whole New Caledonian area in 1853 and commenced using La Grand Terre as a penal colony a decade later. Native uprisings and retaliations against these intrusions were violently repressed and were followed by even more European encroachments and large scale economic development of local resources. Following the discovery of valuable mineral deposits, thousands of Asiatic laborers were imported to work in mines, and greater numbers of Europeans came to reside on the island. By 1900 the old New Caledonian cultures were no longer viable, the native Melanesian population but a shadow of what it had been a century before. Very little traditional sculpture has been produced on La Grande Terre in this century following the demise of the old social and religious systems. Much of what is preserved today in museum collections dates from the final phase of the aboriginal cultures. All the sculptured objects shown in the University Museum’s exhibition and pictured in this article seem to have been produced and collected during this terminal period of aboriginal life. Even though there had been a full century of European impact on every quarter of native life, these influences which ultimately led to the demise of New Caledonian cultures seem to have affected the quality of the sculpture little up until the time it ceased to be carved altogether. Specimens and drawings of carvings dating from the early voyages of discovery and exploration of La Grande Terre are indistinguishable in style from the sculpture produced later, even though the former were made with stone and shell tools, the latter with steel blades.

One of the distinctive types of La Grande Terre sculpture is the ceremonial mask. Carved in hard wood, heavily sculptured with surfaces often, but not always, finely finished, stained or painted black, masks were made only in the northwestern district of the island. Facial shapes and forms vary from ovoid with distorted features rendered in strong relief to almost circular with features spread out and somewhat flattened. The mask is but the sculptured unit of an elaborate costume that completely disguised the wearer. From the chin of the mask hang ropes of human hair representing a long beard. Above the forehead is fixed a band of plaited fivers, to the back of which is affixed a ruff of human hair. Surmounting the forehead band is a large topknot of hair, and from the bottom of the mask and lower edge of the forehead band falls a cape made from a piece of fishing net to which a covering of dark feathers are tied. These disguises were used in ceremonies aimed at invoking the perennial totemic powers that brought rain and abundance on land and in the sea.

Another distinctive type of carving is the heads and full figures carved atop a sharpened stake. These were driven into the ground to commemorate a ritual to local ancestors. There is much variation in these figures. Some are of men, some of women, and some of mothers carrying and nursing children. In one style the facial features resemble those of the more circular and flattened masks. Bodies are frequently constructed of simplified and rounded forms. In another style faces are more realistically carved and are often double. Projecting beards are a common motif and heads are sometimes surmounted by a round form that depicts the turban headdress worn by men of La Grande Terre and the topknot of the ceremonial masks.

The most impressive series of functionality related sculpture are the architectural accessories to the ceremonial men’s houses of each village. These houses were fully circular, built around a massive king post, and covered by a steeply sloped conical roof of thatch. All of the several types of sculpture carved to embellish the house were commemorations of some aspect of the patrilineal ancestors of the household. In contrast to the masks which were of hard and lasting wood and meant to be handed down across the generations in perpetuity, just as the totemic powers they represented were perpetually transmitted and revivified each generation, the architectural sculptures were even ceremonially destroyed at the death of the senior occupant and the consequent disbanding of his household. This is why many of the architectural pieces pictured here, as well as many that are in other collections, are often in poor condition.

Erecting the central king post, building the men’s house around it, carving and installing the sculptural embellishments were a sacred series of propitiative rituals. On each side of the doorway were a matched pair of heavy carved slabs, most typically with a stylized face carved at the top with geometric figures below. Often a similarly carved but smaller face was placed in the ground between or before them as a threshold figure. Across the top of the doorway was a lintel on which was carved or incised an all-over pattern of face figures. On these the ancestral face was reduced to its simplest and essential linear elements. There is a continuity of style between these doorway figures and the rounder masks with the more flattened and broad features.

Inside and at the back of the house, opposite the entrance, were another pair of large figures that balanced the doorway pair. Narrower and less massive, they were often styled quite differently from the figures flanking the door. Some, even, were carved in full round and resembled the style of the most sculptural masks and some of the figures on stakes.

Inside, running from the top of the doorway to the rear of the house, were two tie beams on which were carved further anthropomorphic figures and sometimes animals in low relief. None of these types of carving were displayed in the University Museum’s recent exhibition.

The crowning embellishment of the house was a lofty pole with a caved figure midway along it. It was mounted at the apex of the conical roof and projected into the sky as a spire. Along the upper portion of the spire, above the carving, were hung large conch shells, symbolic of totemic origins in the sea. The formal styles of the spire carvings are not only the most distinctive and unique from La Grande Terre, they are also one of the rare instances where a mode of execution that has been called “split representation” is found. Split representation is a way of intellectually splitting and cutting a figure in full round so that all its dimensions can be represented on a single plane. It is akin to one of the ways in which the spherical world is represented on a flat surface by cutting the map into gores. In primitive art, split representation is found in such other widely separated cultures as those of the Indians of the Northwest Coast of North America and the Bakota peoples of the Congo. New Caledonian split representation on the spire figures is coupled with a rather rigid longitudinal bilateral symmetry and a vertical balance of sculptural elements. The figure is always repeated in a double faced or Janus type of presentation.

Most typically, the spire figure is topped by a headpiece, representing the topknot, as found in mask disguises, or as an enlarged design of an ornamental comb. Below, this is balanced by an ovoid representation of the chest and thorax. Just below the headpiece element is a form that represents the top of the head as though it were split and brought forward into projections. To balance this element is a similar form representing shoulders and arms. Above the arms a chin, greatly enlarged, is similarly split and projected outward. This is balanced above by elements of the forehead and a forehead band, as found in the mask costume. In the center of the split and projected forms rests the face of the figure, features flattened and extruded with ears–sometimes with top and lobes split apart and independently carved–horizontally projected beyond the cheek line. The total effect is of a group of symmetric and almost abstract forms stacked in a vertical series.

All the architectural sculpture types vary significantly from district to district, sub-cultural area to sub-cultural area. There is a decided trend to this variability, in the spire and door figures particularly, of less and less realism to more and more symbolism and geometrization as one moves from northwest to southeast along La Grande Terre, on beyond to the Isle of Pines, and finally out to the Loyalty Islands. Each area of New Caledonia can be said to have its distinctive “dialect” of architectural sculpture. In each the cultural meanings of the carvings are the same; only the formal expression of the iconographic elements changes.

Figure sculpture, miniaturized and conventionalized, is carried over to ornament certain utilitarian objects, even then, its religious significance seems not to be lost. Arrow foreshafts and lances used in feuding and warfare often carry carved heads. The so-called parade axe, an elegantly hafted blade ground and polished from green, jade-like serpentine stone, decoratively bound and attached to a half coconut shell wrapped in cloth, often has a carved face on the handle. Such axes were carried by the ceremonial leader in one of the important ritual dances of some of the sub-cultures of La Grande Terre. Handles of hardwood knives, used to cut yams, are worked into stacked shapes that resemble the most abstractly geometric spire figures. Heads of fighting clubs, which are quite diverse in shape, also resemble some of the more abstractly conceived forms used in architectural sculpture.

In New Caledonia sculpture there is a decided preference for both round, even bulbous, forms and for geometric figures, sometimes angular, sometimes rounded. Often the special quality of a carving is to be found in the interplay of the two in a single composition. In a somewhat different tradition are still other objects of bamboo that are decorated with cut-out shapes, incision, and etching. Combs are one type of these. Shapes similar to those cut out on the tops of the combs are found also as crests on spire figures from the northwestern districts of La Grande Terre. But the most interesting bamboo objects–from the ethnographic angle at least–are bamboo tubes on which ritual scenes are engraved and blackened. In these, naively rendered human figures carry such implements as axes, clubs, and guns. Houses, on which the spire figures are disproportionately enlarged, are also a favored motif, for they are the focus of important community rituals. The etched tubes were used as containers for specialized protective magical charms.

The range and variation of sculptural compositions from La Grande Terre are another testament of the seemingly inexhaustible creativity of man in his quest to portray his subjective religious ideas and emotions in visible plastic form. Whether or not the New Caledonian sculptor, his clients, and his audiences ever sought to create and derive purely aesthetic experiences, as we think of them in Western Civilization, is dubious and at this time cannot be determined. But that the old societies of the New Caledonia area held sculpture to be a special vehicle of public communication to express their views and concerns regarding the universe about them is certain. What more fitting record could a primitive society without writing leave of itself as civilization engulfed it?

Cite This Article

Davenport, William H.. "Sculpture from La Grande Terre." Expedition Magazine 7, no. 1 (September, 1964): -. Accessed February 24, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/sculpture-from-la-grande-terre/


This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to digitalmedia@pennmuseum.org.