Collections •  Oceania  

In Oceania masks are spread unevenly. They can almost exclusively be found in Melanesia (New Guinea, New-Ireland, Vanuatu, New-Caledonia). In the other areas the mask is only used sporadically as there is a predilection for tattoos and scarifications.
The diversity of Melanesian art is amazing. If we want to understand the meaning of the objects, we have to take into account that they may not be isolated from other elements, that they have not been made for their beauty or their aesthetic value. Melanesia’s objects – masks included – have to be analysed in their complex social, cultural and cultual context where great importance is attached to the ancestor cult and the contact with the world of the deceased.

The rituals of Melanesia constitute a system which is parallel to the world of words: they do not represent a story but actions which are themselves carriers of meanings which do not need any explanations. The object itself also has a meaning and transmits a message which cannot be expressed in words. Melanesian art objects, both the profane and the sacred ones, are and have to be regarded as carriers of a non-verbal communication towards Man and the Others (who can be the ancestors, the divinities, the forces of nature of the spirits). However, the art of Melanesia is not easy to interpret as each object has several meanings. It can thus be decoded in different ways depending on the age group, the initiation grade, the family or the lineage a person belongs to.

This wide range of meanings – which requires a stylisation of shapes and colours – makes the mask a widely used and ephemeral tool for the communication with the ancestors.