American artist Caroline Mytinger died in virtual obscurity at the age of 83 in 1980. After she and her friend, Margaret Warner, ventured to the remote locales of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands between 1926 and 1930, she had a fleeting moment of fame and recognition. Returning to the United States with 25 large oil portraits and myriad sketches, these stunning images were a record of the indigenous people in a world that was about to change at breakneck speed. Between 1930 and 1935, exhibitions to showcase this work brought the world of Melanesia to the public and was shown at prestigious museums around the country – the first being the American Museum of Natural History in New York under the auspices of Margaret Mead. Since then, the artworks have been crated away until photographer Michele Westmorland uncovered their whereabouts at UC Berkeley’s Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology.
Seattle-based photographer Michele Westmorland discovered the story of Caroline and Margaret by a gift from a family friend. It was one of two books Caroline wrote and published in the 1940s. New Guinea Headhunt was one of the most exciting books Michele would ever read–most likely because of her lifelong passion for photographing the diverse marine life and people who live in the magical islands of Melanesia. That is not to slight the books. In fact, Caroline’s first book, Headhunting in the Solomon Islands, received rave reviews from book critics and an honor from Reader’s Digest as Book of the Month.
After years of research about Caroline Mytinger’s drive to paint portraits of indigenous tribes and her ahead-of-her-time quests and independence, Michele decided it was time to plan an expedition to trace the footsteps of the amazing artist and her friend, whom Caroline described as “the bedeviled handyman.” For two months, Michele’s expedition team traveled by vessel to many of the same locations where Caroline painted. The team that documented this journey consisted of photographers, a filmmaker and audio person, a historian and a Papua New Guinean anthropologist. There were also a number of support people on the ground to assist with introductions and translation. The expedition carried stacks of prints of Mytinger’s artwork to share with the local people. The question was, would these people care about what was depicted in the artwork done almost 80 years ago? Remarkably, Michele found the prints inspired long conversations with the elders about traditions that have been lost or forgotten. Some village leaders expressed interest in re-establishing certain designs in dress or tattoos. It must be noted, however, that all cultures and traditions evolve, and it is not for the outsider to make value judgments about retaining old ways or dispensing with them in favor of change.
The most rewarding part of the journey was discovering descendants of subjects in four of the paintings. Michele’s interview with Oala Mase, the grandson of a sorceress named Kori Taboro who posed for Caroline’s painting For the Dance, revealed deep emotions and memories. Looking up from the painting with tears in his eye, Oala stated that before his grandmother passed away, she told him that a white woman had once painted her likeness. Oala prayed that someone would come tell him this story and show him the portrait.
More than 90 hours of footage was shot and some 10,000 images captured. Michele is currently raising funds on Kickstarter for a documentary film and a companion book. Both will include the rich and beautiful paintings by Caroline Mytinger, photographs by Michele Westmorland, and artwork by Jeffry Feeger, an emerging Papua New Guinean portrait artist who is also inspired by Mytinger's work.
You can contribute to the fundraising campaign and learn more about the project here.