with the patronage of

Principal patrons of the exhibition

Patron of the exhibition and of the restoration of the Kanak masks

Exhibition partner

Maison de la Nouvelle-Calédonie


Photo credits

(1) © Musée de Nouvelle-Calédonie, Noumea, New Caledonia/Eric Dell'Erba

(2) © musée du quai Branly, photograph Patrick Gries

(3) Agency for the Development of Kanak Culture-Tjibaou Cultural Centre, Noumea, New Caledonia/® Eric Dell'Erba

(4) © musée du quai Branly, photograph Claude Germain

(5) © Musée de Nouvelle-Calédonie, Noumea, New Caledonia/® Eric Dell'Erba

Kanak, Art is a word

 - Click to enlarge, open in a new window


From 15th October 2013 to 26th January 2014

  • Garden Gallery
  • Temporary exhibitions and twin tickets


  • 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

events related to the exhibition

visits, catalogues and events around the exhibition

Exhibition preview

About the exhibition

This exhibition is the largest ever held on Kanak culture and brings together more than 300 exceptional works and documents from public European collections (Austria, Switzerland, France, Germany and Italy) and New Caledonia.

The exhibition will feature many previously unseen and spectacular pieces, great traditional works from the world of Kanak art: wooden carvings from the Grand Huts, jade ceremonial axes, pole sculptures and a diverse selection of statuettes and ornaments.

The exhibition is organised on the basis of two major principles:

Applique de porte de case, fin du 19ème siècle. INV. MNC86.5.1 - Click to enlarge, open in a new window
(1) Hut door decoration, late 19th century. INV. MNC86.5.1


the Kanak speak of themselves

it is the Kanak themselves who show the visitor how to understand their world and their vision. They speak of the essential elements of their culture in the first person, integrating them into history and distinguishing between the timeless and the factual. the exhibition is thus structured into cultural categories derived from the Kanak world.

An exchange of Kanak and European views

The exhibition attempts to reconcile two points of view: that of the Kanak looking at these visitors from another world and that of the European sailor, colonist or missionary looking at the Kanak way of life and its language.  Through the objects and documents presented, the exhibition fosters a dialogue between the rich immaterial heritage of the Kanak world and the works conserved in Western museums - which today are the guardians of a large part of the Kanak material heritage.



Carte de la Nouvelle-Calédonie : aires coutumières, principales villes et îles. - Click to enlarge, open in a new window
Map of New Caledonia: traditional areas, main towns and islands.

Exhibition synopsis

The exhibition has a circular layout in which the introduction is also the conclusion. This circular plan is organised according to one of the main themes entitled "the five faces", characterised by the powerful and evident presence of the Kanak word, and a secondary theme entitled "the reflections". This features documentary evidence and traces the development of the western perception of the Kanak world.

Némèè: the "faces"

Hache-ostensoir. Inv. 71.1946.0.51 X.
(2) Monstrance axe. Inv. 71.1946.0.51 X.

In the  Kanak tradition, presenting oneself equates to showing one's face: this is a traditional protocol when entering into the traditional spaces for both individuals and for the representatives of a group. These five "faces" are named in the Ajië language, one of the 28 Kanak languages which are still spoken.  

Nô : the Verb and the Word

The importance of the Word is illustrated in the figure of the chief (also called “the great elder”). It is expressed in what is called the "custom". Shell coins still have their place today. In earlier times, prestigious objects were exchanged, such as jade axes, objects decorated with cords of flying fox hair and a variety of ornaments. These objects form the medium for this Word. The historical figure of Great Chief Mindia (1856-1921) is examined in this section.

L'homme lézard, Dick Bone, 1992. Inv. 63/92/NC/ADCK
(3) The lizard man, Dick Bone, 1992. Inv. 63/92/NC/ADCK


Mwâ ma mwâcirî: the house and the landscape

The traditional Kanak country is organised around three visible realities that are landscape features: the places of origin, the Grand Huts installed at the top of a landscaped alley, the altars to spirits and the remains of original houses. Contemporary memory preserves these ancient paths, which were destroyed by colonial development, population displacements and the enclosure of the Kanak into reserves. The historical figure of Great Chief Nidoish Naissiline (18??- 1880) is examined in this section.

Mwâ ma mëu : the taro and the yam

The immutable cycle of the cultivation of the yam, an essential foodstuff, is one of the most important symbols of Kanak life. They enable the understanding of the unswerving attachment of the Kanak to their land and consequently a better comprehension of the drama consequences of the despoilment of this land which ended in the great Kanak revolt of 1878. In this section, the figure of Atai (1833-1878), leader of the Insurrection of 1878, is examined.

Masque. Inv. 71.1880.39.4.
(4) Mask. Inv. 71.1880.39.4.


Bèmu ma rhee : the ancestors and the spirits

The religious and the sacred are expressed and embodied by the ancestral figure. In traditional society they were made visible through sculpture and masks, while the objects that contained power, such as magic stones, were manipulated in secret. the important role of the dream in Kanak society reflects a mode of communication with the spirits that still exists today. The historical figure of the great chief Aman de Touho illustrates this section.

Kamö ma vibéé : the individual and their connections

The individual is of major importance in the Kanak world. But the importance of the individual's social connections is never forgotten. These connections are recalled during each major life event by means of the circulation of coins that represent them. Contemporary society still lives on the basis of these connections, the depth of which is recalled during weddings and great periods of mourning.

Jean Marie Tjibaou's life ambition (1936-1989) was to attempt to construct a country whose contemporary life was based on the immutable foundations of the Kanak society. The conclusion of the exhibition examines his work.

Komè: the "reflections"

Pot à tabac représentant une tête d'homme kanak, seconde partie du 19e siècle. Inv. MNC2011.1.1a et b
(5) Tobacco pot representing the head of a Kanak man, second half of 19th century. Inv. MNC2011.1.1a and b

The secondary theme is composed of four "reflections", presented as satellites of the "faces":

  • Invention: the Enlightenment
  • Inventory: scientific description
  • Colonisation: the invention of an imagery of propaganda
  • The reappropriation of our image: from Canaque to Kanak.

The concept of the "reflection" is used to historically examine all the works presented. They will always be dated with evidence, either relating to the past or working with the past to express the contemporary nature of the works' functions and meanings.

Objects will be presented here that are linked to the great explorations of the 18th and 19th centuries, a documentary evocation of colonial and universal exhibitions during which several Kanak groups, numerous documents illustrating popular images and common venues, photographic images and documents examining the development of the scientific and missionary view of the Kanak world were exhibited.

The exhibition on tour

The exhibition will be presented from 15th March to 15th June 2014 at the Tjibaou Cultural Centre.

Exhibition media partners