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Mask (Pwemwe)

Arts of the Pacific Islands

This striking mask, with its grimacing mouth, bean-shaped eyes, and bulbous, hooked nose, was made in the northern part of New Caledonia. The thick, shiny patina is evidence of the piece's age and considerable use. The holes around the perimeter were used to affix the beard and wig of human hair, a hat, feathers, and other elements of the costume that completely draped to the knees the dancer who wore it. Little is known about the function of these masks, however, though it is usually said that they represent the spirits of ancestors returning to the village. They may have been associated with now-extinct secret men's associations or used in social control.
DATES 19th or early 20th century
DIMENSIONS 10 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 3 3/4 in. (26.7 x 11.4 x 9.5 cm)  (show scale)
CREDIT LINE By exchange
PROVENANCE Prior to 1942, provenance not yet documented; by June 1942, acquired by Julius Carlebach, New York, NY; June 1942, purchased from Julius Carlebach by the Brooklyn Museum, by exchange.
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CATALOGUE DESCRIPTION Mask fashioned from long, narrow, carved piece of dark wood. The facial features of the mask are carved at the center of the wood. Forehead swells above a continuous V-shaped ridge which defines the eyebrows, eyes are closed (and not perforated), nose is bulbous with spherical nostrils, and mouth is open. Around the perimeter of the piece of wood are numerous small holes; at top center there is one larger hole. There are holes at top and bottom for fastening.These masks were traditionally used for funerary ceremonies of Chiefs and may have been associated with the ancestor god Gomawe. In its complete form, the mask might have been adorned with a beard of human hair and a headdress surmounted by a mass of human hair cut from the heads of mourners. The masker was able to see through the curved mouth, and would wear a cloak made of pigeon feathers. The mask sometimes was painted black, the color painted on the bodies of mourners and symbolic of the roads leading to the land of the dead.
MUSEUM LOCATION This item is not on view
CAPTION Kanak. Mask (Pwemwe), 19th or early 20th century. Wood, 10 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 3 3/4 in. (26.7 x 11.4 x 9.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum, By exchange, 42.243.19. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 42.243.19_SL1.jpg)
IMAGE overall, 42.243.19_SL1.jpg. Brooklyn Museum photograph
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