Artwork of the month

July 2019 Ethnology

Apouéma costume and mourning mask

Oh, how nasty!

This spectacular costume with mask comes from New Caledonia. Richness and variety of the materials, care taken in the treatment of the volumes, high quality of the basketwork, choice of dark tones: such are the features of this newly acquired Apouéma mask. If it could speak, this mask would tell us much on the life, death, and afterlife of the Kanaks

See the artwork in the collection

Apouéma costume and mourning mask
New Caledonia, Grande Terre, first half of the 19th century AD
Wood, notou feathers, coconut palm leaves, human hair, tapa, fruit bat hair, vegetable fibres
120 x 40 x 50 cm

Acquired before 1868 in New Caledonia by Engineer Captain Lesdos, then transmitted by inheritance
Then collection Alain Schoffel
Acquired on 6 January 2019 at the Galerie Schoffel de Fabry, Paris


Fig. 1 © Courtesy Galerie Schoffel de Fabry. Photographer: Gilles Berquet

Dreadful, devilish and wild

We owe this imposing figure made of wood, leaves, feathers as well as animal and human hair (Fig. 1) to Engineer Captain Lesdos, a French soldier serving in Nouméa around 1860, who is known from the historical records1. Captain Lesdos is one among the many French explorers, missionaries and colonists who brought back one of these magnificent masks after a sojourn in New Caledonia. Many of these found their way to museum collections, with or without their feather coat, while others were deprived of everything and reduced to a mere wooden face. Such is the case for the very first Kanak mask brought to Europe: it was acquired in 1792 by the French physician and botanist Jacques-Julien Houtou de La Billardière, who stayed on the island of Grande Terre during the d’Entrecasteaux expedition2. All Westerners who were confronted with these masks would agree on their dreadful, horrible and devilish aspect, which reflected the savagery of Kanak society3. With the Christianization of these islands in 1853, the ritual use of these masks was strictly condemned by missionaries, and their production stopped. The remaining ones, which were simply used for entertainment, can be considered as survivors.

Surprising appearances

In the abundant production of Oceanian masks, this costume with mask is easy to identify as an Apouéma or mourning mask typical of Grande Terre, the largest of the islands of New Caledonia. A recent inventory recorded 163 of them4, this one not included, as it was so far completely unnoticed. This costume, made of three parts (mask, headdress and coat) would completely hide the identity of the wearer, as the feather coat would reach to the knees, leaving only the arms and legs uncovered (fig. 2). This anonymity would enable him to frighten children, threaten women and handle aphrodisiac stones with complete impunity…5 Since the eyes of these masks were never pierced, the wearer could only look out through the mouth. The top of the capillary dome was thus raised very high over the head, giving the wearer a very high stature, which was combined with a rather stiff bearing, due to the dome’s weight. The wearer was also equipped with a bird’s beak club (fig. 2 and 3), a “phallic” mace or a ceremonial axe (fig. 4), as can be seen on a carved bamboo of the Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève6.

Fig. 2 : Drawing of Pierre Bournigal, in Lambert, Mœurs, p. 73, fig. 17
Fig. 3 : FGA-ETH-OC-0040 © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographer: Thierry Ollivier
Fig. 4 : FGA-ETH-OC-0031 © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographer: Thierry Ollivier

The sudden appearance of this gigantic, black, rigid and dishevelled character, sometimes escorted by two naked dancers smeared with charcoal and candlenut soot, has given many people a scare. Captain Julien Laférrière, commander of the Bucéphale, gave this surprising description in 1843: “in the middle of the stage appeared two large black masks with hideous features of shape and dimensions, topped by a big feather crest reminding a kalpak. The torso of the wearers was covered with a kind of short coat also made of black feathers … these two monstrous masks, running and jumping like two fierce beasts unleashed … it was a scene which was somewhat infernal …”7.

What does a perfect Apouéma mask look like?

Pretty much like this one, in fact: along with its venerable lineage and very good state of preservation, it is the quality of its sculpture that makes this costume and mask noteworthy. The first striking feature is the majesty and harmony of the whole thing, despite the ambiguity of the species represented: human or avian? In spite of the beard and hairstyle, the thick ribbed eyelids, hooked nose and feather coat give it the look of a big drowsy bird (fig. 5).

Fig. 5 : © Courtesy Galerie Schoffel de Fabry. Photographer: Gilles Berquet

Several features enhance this closed, apparently meditating face, all pertaining to the concept of pûnû. In the ajië tongue spoken in the middle of Grande Terre, the word pûnû designates any kind of thin and slender extremity: feathers, human or animal hair, strands of hair8.

Westerners who have been confronted with it agree on the abominable, horrible and diabolical aspect of these masks

In this case, the headdress consists in a high bun made of a wicker framework and filled with coconut leaves. Around this dome are coiled spirals of long braided locks very reminiscent of dreadlocks. This is one of the two traditional hairstyles of the Apouéma masks, the second one being a woollen dome made of human hair tufts9. A bark weaving, which is also used as a base for the dome, hides the back of the wearer’s head10 (fig. 6).

Other locks, very similar to those of the hairdress, fall symmetrically from the edge of the hairdress, on both sides of the cheeks, and join to form a long rectangular beard, the tip of which merges in feathers of the notou, the New Caledonian pigeon, and hair of the flying fox, a large Oceanian fruit bat11. This beard imitates the beards with braided and oiled locks once worn by Kanaks during ceremonies12. The costume is completed by a feather coat with its invisible framework, and a fishing net fixed to a well-hidden rope belt made of fruit bat hair. In other words, this mask is both majestic and elegant, sullen and stern, and absolutely not caricatural or grotesque.

Fig. 6 : Muséum d’histoire Naturelle de Toulouse © Muséum de Toulouse

Northern style versus southern style

From which region of Grande Terre does this beautiful mask come from? As far as Apouéma masks are concerned, two styles of sculpture coexist on the island: the northern one, with rather narrow and bulging faces, totally in relief, with a protruding and hooked nose and a toothy grin, and the southern one, with a typical broad, flat and matte-coloured face as well as a small rectangular mouth limited to a mere slit. These flat-nosed faces with small eyes do not have the aesthetic force of the northern masks. Indeed, in the south, the costume-with-mask tradition is much less significant. These objects were simply called “bird feather” and they disappeared soon after the arrival of Europeans13.

Fig. 7 : © Courtesy Galerie Schoffel de Fabry. Photographer: Gilles Berquet

In comparison with other pieces kept in public or private collections, the FGA mask is striking by its finished aspect. It has virtually no equivalent. The forehead is harmoniously bulging and the M-shaped brow bone shadows long, diamond-shaped eyes which are half-closed and oblique. The jowls are large and inflated, a feature reminding the roof finials of the Houaïlou-Bourail region, in the centre of the island14. However, the end of the long nose, bent under the mouth (fig. 7), is rather a northern feature, whereas the rectangular, toothless mouth, is inherited from southern masks. This mask thus displays a fine blend of styles: not completely northern, not completely southern, it mixes different features of both traditions. Perhaps it was made in the central area of the island, where the two types of influence would meet.

“This entire hideous device is black”

These words come from the work of Father Pierre Lambert, a Marist missionary who took part in the evangelization of New Caledonia15. This costume is indeed a mass of blackness: carved in a piece of doi or houp tree, the mask has been coated with black dye, resulting in this dark, deep and shiny colour.

If the FGA mask has not yet been the subject of laboratory studies, we know from analyses carried out on Apouéma masks of the musée du Quai Branly that those from the northern region of Grande Terre were dyed in two phases. First, the wood was uniformly painted with a very thin coat of wax and black pigments made of grilled candlenut or charcoal. Much thicker, the second coat was a mix of pitch and vegetable oil, which gave the mask its shiny look. On our mask, this second coat was only kept in places and forms encrustments over the cheeks (fig. 5). In the southern part of the island, masks display a much more matte colour (fig. 8), which suggests that the pitch coating technique did not follow the spread of these masks in the south16.

Fig. 8 : British Museum, inv. Oc 1954,06.260 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Finally, the coat displays a camaïeu of brown, grey and ginger notou-feathers: the choice of this pigeon, or occasionally of black hens17, for the feathers of the coat, makes sense in a region full of shimmering birds. The choice of a dark and rather even tone in the same colour gamut as that of the mask gives it a stronger meaning. It underlines the sacred character of the mask and of the character it depicts18. Among the Kanaks, black and brown were symbolically related to water, humidity and fertility – and also death.

“Mask hair” and his dreadlocks

Let us consider the usual designation “mourning mask” used by ethnologists to designate this type of object. It is thus closely related to bereavement, death and its rites, a link expressed by the dreadlocks of its hairdress and beard. But how can the hairstyle of a mask represent death? Pu dongo (“mask hair”) was the name given to mourners in New Caledonia. On the death of the chief, men would keep vigil over the deceased until the decomposition of the body and the transfer of the bones to the altar of ancestors19. During this several-year-long period of mourning, associated with very strict prohibitions (washing, shaving, eating with one’s hands and having sexual relations were all forbidden)20, these men would let their hair grow, hiding it under a cloth tied like a turban. At the end of the mourning period, mourners would appear publicly and reveal their hair, which had become so long that in some cases they had to carry it with their own hands21. Their hair was then cut, mixed with vegetable fibres and utilized to make the hair and beard of the Apouéma mask. Wearing this mask during rituals or celebrations was the privilege of one man only, who would keep it for his entire life22.

Bringing the living and the dead together

As we can see, these Apouéma masks made of skin appendages of living men, but produced in a funerary context, are full of symbols meant to recall the powerful links uniting the world of ancestors – among whom the deceased chief – and the world of the living, among whom the current chief and his tribe or chiefdom. The notou feathers come from a statue of the bird which the chief would receive on his enthronement23. As to the flying fox, it also plays an important role linked to the power of the chief. Its hair was used as an adornment for a series of prestige objects such as necklaces24 and sheaths of ceremonial axes or clubs. The hair and beard of the mask perpetuate the souvenir of the deceased chief, and the masked costume materializes his presence.

One should add that many of the patterns used in the making of this mask evoke water and hence the submarine world which is considered by Kanaks as the realm of the dead. For instance, the large nose bent under the mouth represents the sea krait, a semiaquatic snake of New Caledonia which was considered as the food of the dead in the local myths. As mentioned above, the dark colour of the feathers is also related to the watery world. As to the fishing net hidden under the feathers, it recalls the souls of the dead wandering under the sea, as a myth tells how a god once captured spirits with such a net25.

Pouéma, the hero who came from the sea

To conclude, who is the character depicted by these fiendish-looking masks, which missionaries tried so hard to denigrate? There are several interpretations on their meaning. In the north, considered as the origin of the most ancient masks, they are linked with Pouéma / Pwemoin, a mythical hero who is supposed to have come from the sea, wearing the mask26. It is the figure of the ancestor, who was an intermediary between the world of the dead and that of the living27.

Fig. 9 : Photographer: Philadelphe Delord

In the central and northern regions, they are linked with divinities of the realm of the dead. After the Christianization of Grande Terre, the function of the character changed: terrifying or entertaining, he only appeared as a dancer during celebrations28. A photograph taken by Philodème Delord, a missionary who stayed in Grande Terre from 1897 to 1910, shows two of these masks set up in front of a hut, with the caption “Fetishes used as war masks”, probably to frighten the enemy (fig. 9).

Dr Isabelle Tassignon
Curator of the Archaeology Collection
July 2019

Notes and references

  1. Barbançon, L’Archipel des forçats, p. 203.
  2. Kasarhérou, Le masque Kanak, p. 11; Kasarhérou, in Kanak. L’Art est une parole, p. 232.
  3. Kasarhérou, Le masque Kanak, p. 13.
  4. Kasarhérou, in Kanak. L’Art est une parole, p. 232.
  5. Leenhardt, in Guiart, Mythologie du masque, p. 7.
  6. Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève (MEG), Inv. ETHOC 012938: Kasarhérou, Le masque Kanak, p. 49.
  7. After Laférrière, « Nouvelle Calédonie », Revue de l’Orient (1845), p. 96; Kasarhérou, Le masque Kanak, p. 13.
  8. Kasarhérou, « Le cheveu humain et le poil de roussette », p. 174.
  9. Many masks of the same type are preserved at the Musée du Quai Branly, notably inv. 71.1880.39.4, 71.1909.19.5.Oc D and 71.1909.19.4.Oc D.
  10. Kasarhérou, in Kanak. L’Art est une parole, p. 232-237.
  11. The flying fox was very much appreciated, notably for its flesh and fur, see Lambert, Mœurs, p. 166-167.
  12. Leenhardt, in Guiart, Mythologie du masque, p. 7.
  13. Leenhardt, « Mawaraba Mapi », p. 30 ; Kaeppler, Kaufmann, Newton, L’Art océanien, p. 553.
  14. Kasarhérou, Le masque Kanak, p. 28.
  15. “This horrible object only leaves the smoky hut to be used as festival attire. Needless to say, the mysterious man, whose costume frightens the unschooled and entertains those who know it, enjoys prerogatives … This entire device is completely black …”: after Lambert, Mœurs, p. 146-147.
  16. For these issues, see Kasarhérou, in Kanak. L’Art est une parole, p. 242.
  17. Kasarhérou, in Kanak. L’Art est une parole, p. 238-245.
  18. Kaeppler, « Ceremonial Masks », p. 131.
  19. Guiart, Mythologie du masque, p. 43 ; Kasarhérou, Le masque Kanak, p. 50-52.
  20. Guiart, Mythologie du masque, p. 49.
  21. Lambert, Mœurs, p. 238-239 ; Kasarhérou, « Le cheveu humain et le poil de roussette », p. 176-177.
  22. Lambert, Mœurs, p. 160 ; Kasarhérou, Le masque Kanak, p. 47.
  23. On his enthronement, the chief would receive a wooden notou which was installed on the ridge of his hut, see Kasarhérou, Le masque Kanak, p. 47.
  24. Lambert, Mœurs, p. 117, fig. 24 and p. 166-168.
  25. Kasarhérou, Le masque Kanak, p. 47-48.
  26. Guiart, Mythologie du masque, p. 94.
  27. Kasarhérou, Le masque Kanak, p. 52-53.
  28. Kasarhérou, in Kanak. L’Art est une parole, p. 232.


Barbançon, Louis-José, L’Archipel des forçats : histoire du bagne en Nouvelle-Calédonie (1863-1931), Lille, Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2003.

Boulay, Roger, « Art kanak. De Jade et de nacre », Le petit journal des grandes expositions, 216 (1990), 4 p.

Guiart, Jean, Mythologie du masque en Nouvelle-Calédonie, Paris, Société des Océanistes, 1966.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L., « Ceremonial Masks: a Melanesian Art Style », The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 72, 1963, p. 118-138.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L., Kaufmann, Christian, Newton, Douglas, L’Art océanien, Paris, Citadelles & Mazenod, 1993.

Kanak. L’art est une parole. Catalogue de l’exposition du 15 octobre 2013 au 26 janvier 2014, musée du quai Branly, Paris, Actes Sud, 2013.

Kasarhérou, Emmanuel, Le masque Kanak, Marseille, éditions Parenthèses / A. D. C. K., 1993.

Kasarhérou, Emmanuel, « Le cheveu humain et le poil de roussette : histoire de poil en pays kanak », in Le Fur, Yves (dir.), Cheveux chéris. Frivolités et trophées. Exposition au Musée du quai Branly du 18 septembre 2012 au 14 juillet 2013, Paris, Actes Sud, 2012.

LaférriÈre, Julien, « Nouvelle-Calédonie », Revue de l’Orient, 8, 1845, p. 80-102.

Lambert, Pierre, Mœurs et superstitions des Néo-Calédoniens, Nouméa, 1900.

Leenhardt, Maurice, « Mawaraba Mapi. La signification du masque en Nouvelle-Calédonie », Journal de la Société des Océanistes, 1, 1945, p. 29-35.

See also