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Headhunt Revisited

Text and Photos by iLCP Fellow Michele Westmorland, Headhunt Revisited project.

Caroline Mytinger painting Sarli and Wife in Samarai, Papua New Guinea.  1929
Caroline Mytinger painting Sarli and Wife in Samarai, Papua New Guinea. 1929

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.

Caroline Mytinger and Margaret Warner on the first stop of their journey in 1926.  New Zealand.  They were on their way to paint portraits in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.
Caroline Mytinger and Margaret Warner on the first stop of their journey in 1926. New Zealand. They were on their way to paint portraits in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.
Painting by Caroline Mytinger.  A young girl in dance costume, sorceress named Kori Toboro, wearing a net bag. Motuan village of Hanuabada, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.   Courtesy of Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California at Berkeley.
Painting by Caroline Mytinger. A young girl in dance costume, sorceress named Kori Toboro, wearing a net bag. Motuan village of Hanuabada, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Courtesy of Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California at Berkeley.

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.

Jeffry Feeger in New York where he was performing in the New York Arts and Musical Festival
Jeffry Feeger in New York where he was performing in the New York Arts and Musical Festival

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.

Ken Kolias, AKA the volcano man, lives in the shadow of Tavurvur in Rabaul, East New Britain in Papua New Guinea.
Ken Kolias, AKA the volcano man, lives in the shadow of Tavurvur in Rabaul, East New Britain in Papua New Guinea.
Woman from Elevala Village outside of Port Moresby.  The photo was taken at a 4-day long sing-sing in celebration of Father Michael Igo’s 25th ordination Anniversary.  Papua New Guinea
Woman from Elevala Village outside of Port Moresby. The photo was taken at a 4-day long sing-sing in celebration of Father Michael Igo’s 25th ordination Anniversary. Papua New Guinea

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.

Painting by Caroline Mytinger. Many of these headdresses were destroyed by missionaries for the representation of headhunting victories.  Ahuia is the name of the man in the painting and we met the grandson and great granddaughter while on the expedition. Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.  Courtesy of Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California at Berkeley
Painting by Caroline Mytinger. Many of these headdresses were destroyed by missionaries for the representation of headhunting victories. Ahuia is the name of the man in the painting and we met the grandson and great granddaughter while on the expedition. Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Courtesy of Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California at Berkeley

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.

Remains of the past.  These piles of skulls are likely the repository for victims in headhunt raids.  Estimated at over 150 years.  Kaluabu Skull Cave near Hiliwae Village.  Tawali Area, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea
Remains of the past. These piles of skulls are likely the repository for victims in headhunt raids. Estimated at over 150 years. Kaluabu Skull Cave near Hiliwae Village. Tawali Area, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea

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.

The grandson, Oala Mase, of Kori Taboro in the painting “For the Dance” by Caroline Mytinger.  Oala’s wife is pictured with him holding the print of the painting.
The grandson, Oala Mase, of Kori Taboro in the painting “For the Dance” by Caroline Mytinger. Oala’s wife is pictured with him holding the print of the painting.

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”.

"One World - Two Visions" exhibition for Headhunt Revisited.  Jeffry Feeger, Papua New Guinean contemporary artist reinterprets Caroline Mytinger's painting "Flash"  with his painting titled "Movie Star".  Caroline Mytinger painted her portrait showing the popularity of "big hair" and decorated with a live butterfly.  Today, the young men of Papua New Guinea find dreadlocks quite fashionable.
“One World – Two Visions” exhibition for Headhunt Revisited. Jeffry Feeger, Papua New Guinean contemporary artist reinterprets Caroline Mytinger’s painting “Flash” with his painting titled “Movie Star”. Caroline Mytinger painted her portrait showing the popularity of “big hair” and decorated with a live butterfly. Today, the young men of Papua New Guinea find dreadlocks quite fashionable.
"One World - Two Visions" exhibition for Headhunt Revisited.  Jeffry Feeger, Papua New Guinean contemporary artist reinterprets Caroline Mytinger's painting "Sarli & Wife" with his painting titled "Top Town Friends".
“One World – Two Visions” exhibition for Headhunt Revisited. Jeffry Feeger, Papua New Guinean contemporary artist reinterprets Caroline Mytinger’s painting “Sarli & Wife” with his painting titled “Top Town Friends”.

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.

Siaka Heni is a master headdress artist in the village of Hanuabada, Papua New Guinea.  He was commissioned to replicate the headdress in the painting "Heera" then proudly wore it at a reception hosted by the United States Embassy in Port Moresby. The headdress was donated to the PNG National Museum & Art Gallery by the Mytinger Project.
Siaka Heni is a master headdress artist in the village of Hanuabada, Papua New Guinea. He was commissioned to replicate the headdress in the painting “Heera” then proudly wore it at a reception hosted by the United States Embassy in Port Moresby. The headdress was donated to the PNG National Museum & Art Gallery by the Mytinger Project.

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

Comments

  1. Charles Babb
    New Mexico USA
    April 15, 9:57 am

    I read both of Caroline’s books in 1988 and looked around for more information on her life but there was very little to be found. There are few dates mentioned in the book that didn’t jibe with the published date and I became curious as to when the expedition actually took place. I finally solved part of the puzzle when I came across a September, 1929 issue of National Geographic Magazine where there is a photo of her taken aboard the boat Vanapa on her way to Port Moresby. She was a most interesting lady who had a great adventure and then pretty much faded from the pages of history but at least she settled in a beautiful place in Carmel. If someone would write it I would like to read her biography.
    I still have the issue of the National Geographic as a donation if it would help someone’s research project.

  2. Tori Pollard
    Sydney,Australia
    April 15, 3:10 am

    I have been travelling to Papua New Guinea for over 15 years. The Headhunter Revisited project is a significant contribution to the history of PNG and the links with Jeffry Feeger capture the full cycle of contributions that artists can make to our knowledge of the world in an historic and contemporary sense. How easily Carolyn’s work could have remained in a dusty vault. Thanks to Michelle it will be there for us to see into the future?PNG is changing so rapidly. Michelle’s work in encouraging the recognition of Carolyn’s work as a pictorial statement of a lost world is wonderful. Jeffry’s modern take on the same theme is excellent. Well done Michelle and all the team.

  3. A Aura Sabina
    México
    April 14, 12:24 pm

    Estoy buscando a Michele Westmorland. ¿Podrían proporcionarme sus datos personales de contacto,por favor?

  4. Gerald Todd
    Canada
    April 13, 3:41 pm

    I just came into possession of Caroline Mytinger’s two books on her travels to New Guinea. With the two books came a pastel portrait of a new bride, along with a personal letter (dated Nov. 30th,1952) and a description of the painting. Apparently she did two of this same subject. The letter (describing her travel) was written to Tom Hall, a relative of my aunt, who was an artist in Montreal and an admirer of her work. The note read: The Bride (Charcoal drawing)
    The girl is already married (not in bridal costume) but is wearing some of the shell heirlooms of which her husband is so proud. The couple came to our hotel in Samarai (at the eastern end of Papua on New Guinea) and asked the artist to make a pic-a-ture of his new wife. He was about fifteen years older than his young bride and a half head shorter, and he must have paid many pigs and fathoms of shell money for the girl for he was proud of her as a man is of his good horse or a big new car. No other native ever asked to have a picture made, and this girl’s husband even offered to pay (a shilling) for the drawing. We made two, kept one and gave the man the other. The drawing is very beautiful.

  5. Carol Stoughton
    Sacramento CA
    April 12, 8:30 pm

    Over ten years ago, my father (in his 90s) turned over his huge trove of family letters to me. Buried in the boxes I discovered a thin folder of letters from artist Caroline Mytinger to her Aunt Caroline Mytinger (my great great aunt.) I knew nothing about Caroline the artist. This led to my discovery of Caroline’s two books written in the 1940s, one a book of the month. They were spellbinding tales of unique travel adventures plus cultural details of the South Seas, and were infused with her humor. Further internet searches turned up Michele Westmorland and her dramatic Headhunt Revisited quest. I have been entranced as her project goals have steadily advanced to this pretentious moment. Please lend your support. Go Michele!

  6. Sandy Jeglum
    Seattle
    April 10, 5:47 pm

    I can’t wait to see Headhunt Revisited come to life on screen!

  7. catherine idau igua
    Papua New Guinea
    April 7, 4:08 pm

    Wow,great stuff!! I’ve seen people from my place like Siaka Heni and my great grand mothers(Kori)painting..Well done great to know the wonderful history many thanks team..