Culture, init?

Nouméa, New Caledonia, 10/26/2019

After a few days basking in glory of the New Caledonian sun, we thought that we ought to do something a little more wholesome than your average beach slump, so headed for the Tjibaou Cultural Centre. This architectural masterpiece sits to the North East of central Nouméa, nestled in some pleasing woodland which provides welcome shade.

The building was designed by Renzo Piano (most famous for designing the Pompidou Centre en Paris and, more recently, the Shard) as a contemporary symbol of indigenous Kanak culture and an ode to the movement for independence against French rule. The centre includes ample conference space, a research centre, library, many art galleries and some botanical gardens. The whole complex has been carefully crafted to bring a sense of community and identity for the Kanak people and is generally just a really cool place to hang out.

The most striking architectural features are the cylindrical pods that house some of the artistic displays. Piano has attempted to capture the essence of Kanak architecture by mimicking the structure of a Kanak “Grand Hut”, (traditionally home to the chief of a tribe), which typically boasts a conical thatched roof, crowned with a totem pole similar in style to that of Native American tribes. Piano has also mimicked the style of Grand Hut in his use of traditional materials for the pods, AKA wood, to ensure that the aesthetics are in-keeping with Kanak style. In Jane’s opinion, this gives an overall effect akin to a handful of half-finished, giant wicker baskets; I think they look pretty cool. As for the “traditional” building materials, the pods are made from iroko timber (imported from Africa) over native wood due to its superior durability. Possibly not quite what the Kanak people had in mind, but it’s the thought that counts right?

The centre’s namesake Jean-Marie Tjibaou was the leader of the Kanak independence movement. He had mooted the idea of establishing a cultural centre for the Kanak people in the early eighties but was assassinated in the decade’s ninth year by a fellow Kanak who felt that Tjibaou “wasn’t radical enough” with his anti-colonialist policies. Following Tjibaou’s untimely death, the centre was eventually opened in 1998 to assuage public anger and mute the outcry, though New Caledonia itself is still a “special collectivity” of France (AKA under French rule).

Inside, many tributes to Kanak culture and Tjibaou himself are present. This served as our main opportunity to learn about the indigenous people of the island. We saw some fabulous and sometimes very quirky art, ranging from the traditional totemic style sculptures through to some rather out there surrealist paintings of cats. There was also a statue of a bull made of old cans of spam. Of course!

We also got to see some traditional Kanak-style living quarters, including a replica of the aforementioned Grand Hut, in amongst the more contemporary structures of the centre. A film showing how these beautiful huts are stitched and weaved was fascinating but will most likely serve of no use to me, although with the price of housing as it is this may be an economically viable and eco-friendly alternative...

Even if you have no discernible interest in learning of the culture of New Caledonia (shame on you!) then this is a fantastic spot purely for the surroundings. The gardens run right down to a small bay, which played host to a local market on the day we visited. We chose not to engage with the jam-selling venture-capitalists despite their tasty looking goods and instead opted to take some photographs and head back to the city.

Lovely cultural visit complete, we resumed our unrefined holidaying in style and bought a roast chicken from a roadside vendor! (This is basically France after all...)

We then ventured on to learn about the other indigenous residents of New Caledonia at the Lagoon Aquarium back in Anse Vata. We tried (unsuccessfully) to remember which fish we had seen snorkelling at Isle aud Cannards, and met some new creature-friends including a stripy sea snake, some jelly fish and no less that three different kinds of sea turtle!

The aquarium takes in injured turtles found in and around NC and attempts to nurse them back to health. From what we saw at the turtle feeding, this largely consists of of throwing buckets of broccoli into the turtle enclosure and watching them fight for their florets. Having never seen a turtle up close before this was a pretty exciting (and amusing) encounter, though watching these elegant sea-herbivores I was surprised to learn that the juvenile green turtle is carnivorous before adopting a vegetarian diet as an adult!

Fully aquatinted with all things New Caledonian, we headed home for the day to dream about tomorrow’s adventures on Signal Island where we hoped to see some turtles in the wild, presumably sans broccoli.

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