Kanak Roof Spire - New Caledonia

Architectural carvings were one of the primary forms of artistic expression for the Kanak people of New Caledonia. In the past, and to some extent today, the house of the chief was both the physical and the metaphorical center of every Kanak village. Such houses, known as grande case, were circular, with towering conical roofs crowned with carved finials that were visible from afar. These roof spires (flèche faîtière) were carved with anthropomorphic features and embodied the power of the chiefs over their subjects, standing high above the village.

Roof spires embody a tripartite design, with a central bust sitting on a wide base (attached to a long pole inserted into the roof of the grande case) and surmounted by a pointed peak, usually elaborated with additional motifs. The central face represents the ancestral spirits, symbolic of the community of the spirits of the departed and of the transition between the worlds of the dead and the living. This bust is also flanked or surrounded by hook forms that are intended to prevent malevolent spirits from enveloping the ancestor. Conch shells were sometimes attached to, or mounted on, the peak of the spire, symbolizing the ancestor’s voice. Following the death of a chief, the flèche faîtière was placed atop his grave or in a memorial location specific to his clan. Kanak sculptors resorted to this startling, surrealistic solution in order to avoid lessening the chief’s image. 

This spire shows a streamlined silhouette and a contained, elegant composition with rounded forms balancing one another at the upper and lower ends. At the bottom of the wide base the neck of the support pole is still intact. The central element depicts a blackened bust with bulging eyes, bulbous nose and projecting ears, topped with a spherical crown that in turn supports a structure of angular motifs and leaf-like forms. Two sharp hooks descend from the structure to flank the face. The central, topmost shape, swelling like a paddle, stretches upward to a slender, tapering point. Taking in the elegant, powerful upward movement of the composition, one can imagine the dramatic visual effect achieved by the spire reaching up like a spear from the roof of the grande case

Upon the front face of the spire’s main trunk is found an old, eroded catalogue label that in handwritten script reads “Nouvelle Caledonie – Ornament du faite d’un maison des naturels.”

Early 19th century
Wood, organic material, pigments
89 ½” h
Provenance:
- French collection (based on old collection label)
- John J. Klejman, New York
- Faith-Dorian & Martin Wright Collection, New York, acquired from the above on January 16, 1968

#578
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