In 1926, painter Caroline Mytinger and her friend, Margaret Warner, set out from San Francisco for a four-year adventure in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. With little more than $400, a few art supplies, and a trunk of clothing, they made their way through what was then known as the land of headhunters, with the goal of painting Melanesia’s inhabitants. Their journey was nothing short of amazing and, at times, fraught with danger. Mosquitoes engorged with blood had to be snipped off with scissors; cockroaches the size of hummingbirds chewed on their toes. They ran into male explorers who assumed they were the first to delve into the remote Fly River Territory—and who were shocked to find two very petite young women from America in this seemingly hostile environment. A storm almost washed away all of Caroline’s painting supplies, and a volcanic eruption threatened to destroy the artwork. Upon the women’s return to the United States in 1930, Caroline’s paintings were exhibited in notable museums such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York. After 1935, the paintings were crated away, not to be seen until 2004, when they were discovered at UC Berkeley’s Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology by photographer Michele Westmorland.
Nearly 80 years later, Caroline’s paintings now inspire two contemporary artists: Michele Westmorland, whose discovery of the paintings inspired her to lead an expedition retracing Caroline’s journey, and Papua New Guinean portrait painter Jeffry Feeger, who reinterprets contemporary counterparts of Caroline’s paintings in a modern style.
Why would this matter to the people of Melanesia? How would seeing visual records of past traditions be significant in a rapidly changing and globalized world?
Melanesia, a vast, biodiverse region of islands in the Southwest Pacific Ocean that includes Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, has the world’s greatest linguistic diversity, with more than 800 languages spoken. Rich with minerals, energy, agricultural and forest resources, Melanesia is also increasingly attractive to transnational companies, who come for raw materials such as gold, copper, oil and timber.
While there is a small collection of documentary films and books about Melanesia, they are primarily ethnographic. To date, no project speaks about Caroline Mytinger or explores the value of contemporary art—whether painting, photography or film—to the culture of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Caroline Mytinger’s legacy—25 oil paintings, more than 40 sketches, two books, as well as numerous notes and ephemera—provides a wealth of ethnographic detail and a snapshot of Papua New Guinea and the Solomons in the early 20th century. Caroline, was also the first female and one of the only artists to produce color interpretations of the Melanesian culture at this time.
The Headhunt Revisited expedition team, consisting of a filmmaker, audio person, photographers, historian, a Papua New Guinean anthropologist and led by Michele Westmorland, retraced Caroline’s footsteps for two months in 2005. The team had made prints of Caroline’s artwork and brought them along to see how interested today’s islanders would be in the paintings. It was remarkable that the team discovered descendants of subjects in four of the paintings. The prints were also a vehicle to engage with people in remote villages, especially those where Caroline did her paintings. These interactions resulted in intimate conversations about change, adaptation, religion, culture and nature and were key to engendering an open and important dialogue with the elders regarding their past.
One of the more memorable encounters was with Oala Mase, the grandson of Kori Taboro, who is featured in Caroline’s painting For the Dance. Kori was a powerful woman in her village. She called for rain with her magic spells, made offerings so that the gardens would produce a bounty of food, and, as a midwife, brought babies into the world. The painting shows Kori applying the body décor to a young woman preparing for a sing-sing (celebration). Upon looking at the print of For the Dance for the first time, Oala looked up with tears in his eyes and stated that his grandmother had told him that a white woman had once painted her likeness. He said that he’s been praying for years that someone would come tell him this story.
Two years ago, Michele was introduced to a growing contemporary art community in Papua New Guinea. One of these young artists, Jeffry Feeger, is passionate about painting portraits of people living in a changing world. Jeffry simply states. “Culture is fleeting; it is always running away from you.” Jeffry’s paintings tells stories of people who are concerned with today’s social issues and loss of land and environment—these are not portraits of islanders with painted faces, colorful headdresses and traditional clothing. Inspired by Caroline’s art, Jeffry has created a series of his own paintings for an upcoming exhibition, “One World, Two Visions”.
So, what is significant about this story? It continues the dialogue about cultural preservation, celebration and pride. The Headhunt Revisited project will be targeting a date to add content and round out the story. Today, plans are in the works to continue filming Jeffry working in his studio in Alotau, PNG, and to introduce him to the descendants of Kori Taboro—some five generations of family members—for future portraiture.
More than 90 hours of footage has been shot and some 10,000 images captured. A documentary film is in early post-production and a companion book is in development. Both will include the rich and beautiful paintings by Caroline Mytinger, photographs by Michele Westmorland, and artwork by Jeffry Feeger.
All forms of art—painting, photography, and filmmaking—are instrumental in communicating the stories of culture, tradition and pride. Art in any form spans oceans and decades.
Michele Westmorland is a Senior Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Although she is known for her underwater photography and marine environmental issues, her passion for photographing culture has also been recognized. She has been diving and traveling to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands for more than 20 years and has developed a deep respect and admiration for the diverse population residing in these magical island countries.
Caroline Mytinger paintings courtesy of the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology and the Regents of the University of California at Berkeley
Thank you, Jeffry Feeger, for allowing me to share your story and painting.
For more information: http://www.headhuntrevisited.org