Headhunt Revisited: Chasing a Melanesian Dream

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

With Michele Westmorland

Headhunt Revisited Film

Do you admire women who seize the chance to do what few other people have done? To count down the days to National Kick Butt Day, October 14, I am celebrating ten adventurous members of the Society of Woman Geographers (SWG). The seventh person to be honored is artist Caroline Mytinger. This post also features SWG member Michele Westmorland, who provided many of the photographs.

Gibson Girl Goes to Melanesia

In 1926, artist and socialite Caroline Mytinger left the United States on a four-year trip to Oceania. Her goal was to preserve, through her paintings, one of the most culturally diverse areas of the world—the people and culture of Melanesia. Like many anthropologists, Caroline worried that indigenous races would soon vanish due to colonization by imperialist countries. Before they assimilated into European culture, she wanted to introduce Americans to the rich diversity of the Melanesian people.

Born in Sacramento, California, Caroline was a striking strawberry blond. In a letter of introduction, she described herself:

“I appear to have large feet and orange tresses, which hang around most of the time and make me look like a beastly flamboyant poodle.”

With her hair pinned up, she was attractive enough to model as a Gibson Girl, the iconic image of the tall, slender, and stylish new American woman. In 1920, Caroline married Dr. George Stober, but soon realized that she “was an anarchist who would never live in the conventional grove of matrimony.” She left Stober to carry out her dream of painting a vanishing race of indigenous people.

From Headhunt Revisited Film

At age 29, Caroline traveled to Melanesia with her friend Margaret Warner. She chose this region of the Pacific because it was compact. She could easily travel by boat to the various islands to paint people from different regions of Melanesia. She had consider painting indigenous Americans, but discarded the idea because their tribes are scattered across a vast nation.

They lacked their friends’ support:

They said no female outfit such as ours could go alone to paint headhunters and come back with their own heads. No man had done it.” Caroline replied: “No man had yet tried.”

Carolina and Margaret set out with $400—enough money to ship their bodies back to the United States if they should die during the trip. Caroline planned to raise money while they were traveling by painting the portraits of the Europeans who colonized the nation: “As long as there were still Europeans in the South Pacific, with heads to draw, and purses to pay for the likeness, there must be portrait commissions.”

In the Land of the Headhunters

Caroline was a plucky young woman. She wondered: “Just how much wheedling and chiseling, gold digging or apple polishing does it take to hoist oneself around the world on her own petard? The answer is this: The means of getting something for nothing is the same abroad as it is at home: sincerely expect to pay for it.” She hitched her way up the Fly River to the interior of Papua New Guinea on the boat Vanapa. She was delighted that the captain agreed to take them to visit the headhunters, who lived in the inland’s interior jungles: “It was the fastest wheedling on record. For a minute later, Margaret and I had staggered out onto the boat’s dark veranda, and were leaning on one another like an A, dazed to find ourselves going into a country that not even many white men have visited.”

While on the river cruise, they encountered leeches, bats, crocodiles, and a six-foot-high tidal bore that dissipated before it reached the Vanapa, which was stuck on a sandbar. The rising water lifted the boat, and they puttered on to the village of Weriadai, where they hoped to find a headhunter to paint. As they approached the village, they heard a commotion. Caroline wryly recalled:

“We, being tourists, assumed this was a Fly River welcome, but there seems to have been some question about it.”

She stayed on board and watched. The villagers sent over a canoe with men who met the government official on his whaleboat: “When the two boats met, there was one of those Atlantic Charter conferences, very brief; and we saw tobacco changing hands.”

Omaha World-Herald (Omaha, Nebraska, Jan. 3 1943), 45

Caroline and Margaret hailed a canoe by waving tobacco. Quickly, the villagers taxied them to shore, where a riot was developing. Caroline wanted to sketch one of the women, and so they darted through the crowd and headed for a longhouse, which appeared to be inhabited by the village’s women.

To prove to the women that they were not white men, Caroline pulled the pin out of her hair, and her strawberry-blond tresses tumbled down. She had done this once before to show villagers that she was not a man. This tactic did not work. As Caroline’s eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, she realized that the Weriadai women shaved their heads.

Caroline set out to entertain the women, first by flicking her lighter, then by playing with her automatic camera. Meanwhile, Margaret sat on the window ledge and sang. Caroline tossed some tobacco toward the women. Still, the women were not friendly, and her wheedling was getting her nowhere.

Caroline Painting from Headhunt Revisited Film

Caroline and Margaret admitted defeat and climbed down from the window ledge. The native women gathered near the entrance, where the light shone on them. They had decorated their faces with white clay. Casually, Caroline handed one of the women Old Gold tobacco and then stepped closer.

Outside, the male villagers were still looking for Caroline and Margaret. They approached the longhouse, which was off-limits to outsiders.

When the men stormed to the entranceway, they found an unexpected sight.

Caroline recalled: “We gals were all sitting chummily on the floor inside the longhouse, the clay-plastered Weriadai matrons acquiring charm by smoking Old Golds and Margaret and I yodeling the Hawaiian ‘Piercing Wind.’” The women waved the cigarettes in the faces of the protesting men and defiantly lined up so that Caroline could take a photograph, which she would later use to sketch the women.

Caroline continued to look for headhunters. To secure a reputation as a fierce warrior, a man had to collect many heads. She finally found Taupurapi, the “perfect” headhunter. Caroline showed a reporter a picture of Taupurapi:

This is my picture of a head-hunter; just a darling and the best model I ever had. For hours he would stand motionless while I painted him.”

Painting of Taupurapi by Caroline Mytinger

When she returned to the United States four years later, Caroline brought more than a score of oil paintings and dozens of sketches of the Melanesians. Had it not been for a volcano, which emitted sulfurous fumes that harmed the paintings, Caroline would have returned with more portraits. Fellow SWG member, Margaret Mead, helped Caroline secure an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History.

Headhunt Revisited

In 2001, Photographer Michele Westmorland, a SWG member, became interested in Caroline Mytinger’s trip when she read Headhunting in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea Headhunt.

“I just became obsessed with the idea of learning more about this woman.”

“As an artist, an explorer, and a woman, Caroline was ahead of her time. Existing on the margins of the local colonial establishment, Caroline worked against the then dominant views of Melanesian indigenous society as uncivilized and backward. She painted her subjects on their own terms, with pride and dignity, and her work is one of the first color interpretations of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islanders during the 20th century.”

Michele Westmorland in Melanesia

In 2005, Michele set off to retrace Caroline’s journey and meet the descendants of the people whose portraits Caroline painted. The islanders were astonished when they saw pictures of their ancestors’ body decorations in Caroline’s paintings. They had never seen these tattoos before. Using Caroline’s paintings as an intermediary, Michele was able to converse with Melanesians about their culture, religion, and adaption to change.

From Headhunt Revisited

Michele also visited Jeffry Feeger, a famous contemporary Papua New Guinean portrait artist, who created a series of paintings informed by Caroline’s artwork that captures “what it means to be a modern-day Papua New Guinean.” Michele notes that his “artwork and voice brings the legacy and story of Caroline Mytinger full circle.”

Michele documented her journey in the film Headhunt Revisited. It “combines footage of Michele’s visits with contemporary Melanesians, interviews with Jeffry and other contemporary artists, and archival footage to present a compelling story about art, identity and cultural memory.” A reviewer described the film as an exploration of “the power of art to span oceans and decades, inspiring others to communicate stories of culture and tradition.” It is a engrossing film.

Other Posts in this Series

  1. Amelia Earhart, aviator

  2. Mickie Akeley, old school explorer

  3. Mary Vaux Walcott, botanist

  4. Lucile Quarry Mann, naturalist

  5. Frances Oldham Kelsey, pharmacologist

  6. Rebeca Carion Cachot, anthropologist

  7. Louise Arner Boyd, Arctic Explorer

  8. Caroline Mytinger, Artist Explorer

  9. Gloria Hollister, Marine Biologist

  10. Blair Niles, Explorer and Author

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