‘I don’t choose what I’m going to sculpt’, says Jean-Paul Touabat. ‘I just look at the shape of the rock and it inspires me.’ In time, his hands reveal all sorts of creatures hidden in the tender stone: men, kagu birds, fish.
Touabat, from the Yambé tribe, has been shaping creatures in soapstone for 30 years. Like many of New Caledonia’s Kanak sculptors, he doesn’t talk much and doesn’t define himself as an artist.
He just carves, completely absorbed by his passion as if his hands were merely an extension of the work of nature, shaping the world around him.
SPIRITS OF THE LAND
Sculpture is one of the richest and most omnipresent forms of art linked to the Kanak people, the indigenous Melanesian inhabitants of this French outpost in the South Pacific. It acts as a bridge between humans and nature, the sacred and mundane, the visible and invisible.
In olden times, the Spirits of the Land—‘ko névâ’ in Ajië (one of the island’s 37 languages and dialects)—were carved from wood. Local trees—like kohu, houp, gaïac, jackfruit or coconut tree—offered abundant raw material for sculptors to represent mythical figures.
Most often you’ll see anthropomorphic or animal figures embodying life and death symbols. Wood remains the preferred material and the faces almost always display distinctive prominent noses.
To find Kanak sculptures around New Caledonia, you just have to look up.
‘This is another traditional trait of Kanak culture: a sense of trust and respect of the given word.’
The iconic flèches faîtières—carved rooftop spears—stand high in the sky. An emblem of chiefdom, they traditionally adorned the great houses of Kanak chiefs with their soaring silhouettes made of an ancestor-symbolizing face in the middle, an upper pole featuring conch shells and a base planted at the center of the hut’s roof.
Nowadays, they can be seen outside of the tribes and even in the bustling city of Noumea (the island’s administrative center), decorating some cultural and official buildings as well as a few local-inspired restaurants.
To really grasp the essence of Kanak sculpting, however, it is necessary to head off the beaten track.
Driving along the northeast coast, you will need to keep your eyes open and your pace slow enough. There, in the Pouébo region, lush vegetation meets an impossibly blue lagoon.
The road roams through the bush, passing picturesque surprises like mailboxes made of old microwaves, empty gas tanks and recycled boat engines.
From time to time, you will also notice small makeshift stalls, most of them lonely and unsupervised, displaying a few soapstone sculptures—faces, birds, lizards, turtles—often shaped like little totems.
Soapstone, or steatite, is a light-colored and malleable rock abundant in the area. Its soft texture and shiny surface make it a staple for local sculptors, who leave their pieces on a roadside table for passersby to purchase.
Buyers are usually expected to slip money into a tiny box left on the stall. This is another traditional trait of Kanak culture: a sense of trust and respect of the given word.
ART AND CRAFT
Among the displays, Touabat’s colorful stall stands out. His sculptures proudly shine under a Kanak flag in the fierce Pacific sky, the delicate yet sturdy curves of the statuettes speaking volumes about the crafter’s skills.
The curious visitor can walk a few steps from the road and exchange words with him. ‘I really like sculpting alone; it’s very quiet,’ Touabat says.
Every few days, he goes to the nearby Col d’Amos to harvest his material, then spends seven to 10 hours a day crouched on his stool, carving in beloved solitude, the ground around him studded with sparkling slivers and glittering dust.
A self-taught craftsman, Touabat prefers sculpting by hand rather than with machines. His simple tools are more than enough: a penknife, a wood rasp and sandpaper. He can spend from three hours to an entire day on one sculpture.
He doesn’t sell very much because the region, although beautiful, attracts few tourists or other travelers. But Touabat doesn’t really mind.
‘I only need money to buy sugar and other little things,’ he says. ‘For the rest, tribe life provides for everything: we have fruits and roots from the forest, fishes from the sea.’
The greatest reward for Touabat seems to be the unexpected recognition from officials: he has been invited to represent the art of Kanak sculpting at a local event and even as far away as Papua New Guinea. He has kept all the newspaper clippings, which he proudly shows without losing his shy smile.
As fellow sculptor Trijikone Elia writes in Ko y névâ: Sculpteurs et Peintres Kanak Contemporains (1992), ‘Nature is always art, but you have to be able to appreciate it… the drehu word for sculpture—it’s hna sa atr, which means, literally, ‘where man is shaped.’’
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Photos: Alamy/Stéphane Ducandas