By Nick Kelly and Jaleesa Simpson

The Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Noumea, New Caledonia
The Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Noumea, New Caledonia was designed by Italian architect Rezno Piano as a contemporary interpretation of a traditional Kanak village.

Noumea’s Tjibaou Cultural Centre is a remarkable dedication to local culture in the spirit of separatist leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou.

The cultural identity and native title of New Caledonia’s indigenous Kanak people are central pillars of the separatist movement within that French territory.

In recognition of this, the Matignon Accord of 1988, among all parties, mandated the implementation of a cultural program as part of the process for settling the issue of independence.

A traditional Kanak wood carving
A traditional Kanak wood carving

A pro-independence advocate, Tjibaou was a driving force behind and signatory to the Accord, as well as a leading proponent of the acknowledgment of Kanak cultural identity.

He was assassinated less than a year after signing the agreement, by a radical independantist, in a culmination of years of violent struggle and incipient civil war.

Long before the Accord, Tjibaou’s vision led him to create the Melanesia 2000 festival in 1975. This celebration of Kanak arts was to unite the native people by giving them a voice through a revival of cultural freedom. It is on the site of the festival that the Tjibaou Cultural Centre was constructed.

Cultural Centre Art Director Guillaume Soulard said this week that the centre was financed by the then French President François Mitterrand in a bid to ease tensions in the territory.

“We are lucky that the most important building in New Caledonia is dedicated to culture,” he said.

The Tjibaou Cultural Centre overlooks Magenta Bay
The Centre overlooks Magenta Bay

“Culture is a place that makes it easier for people to come together.”

The sprawling 3.5 hectare facility overlooks the idyllic Magenta Bay and plays host to exhibitions and performances throughout the year, not only celebrating Kanak culture but that of the entire Pacific region.

It was designed by the renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano who drew inspiration from the local villages.

The structures are a contemporary interpretation of traditional huts built with sustainable materials and harnessing the sea breeze rather than relying on air conditioning.

Architect Rezno Piano's design was inspired by a traditional village
Architect Rezno Piano’s design was inspired by a traditional village

It is maintained at a cost of some A$1.25-million a year; gives 10 to 15 arts exhibitions annually, and 10 to 15 productions of music or theatre, and maintains a library for preserving language and literature; providing local people with an avenue for cultural affirmation and change, and income in the process.

“The centre is managed by the Kanaks Development Agency and is a place for arts and tradition of the Pacific region.

“Thirty percent of our budget is spent on wages, thirty percent for maintenance, and thirty percent is spent through exhibitions,” Mr Soulard says.

The centre has a village garden, with food plants and trees that hold a spiritual value; linking to its ten main pavilions, organised in a row like a small village with a chief’s house at the end, giving the look of unfinished construction – as would befit a culture that grows and changes over time.

Visitors to the 'Kanak Trail' leave offerings in the hollow of a stump in a similar fashion to a wishing well
Visitors to the ‘Kanak Trail’ leave offerings in the hollow of a stump in a similar fashion to a wishing well

The botanic garden is intersected by a walkway, the ‘Kanak Trail’ where visitors learn the significance of the environment in local culture, and where community members can grow and harvest fresh produce.

Mr Soulard said that the centre has been visited by 75% of New Caledonian residents and has proven a popular outlet for cultural arts.

The visitors include members of the European French community, the Caldoches. “We don’t see much of them but they are relaxed about this”, says Mr Soulard.

All children are invited for week-long, live-in camps for performances and cultural activities, and the special dormitory accommodation built for them is being extended.

“We have a studio for musicians, a theatre for performing arts, a workshop for visual artists,” he said.

“This is a place where people can work and create new ideas, and this was the thinking of Tjibaou in the beginning; he wasn’t someone focussed on the past.

“Of course we are linked with the past, but our job here is to think of the future.”