Seattle filmmaker retraces steps of artist who painted a changing Melanesia

Papua New Guinea artist Jeffry Feegler (right) is featured in the documentary. (Courtesy photo).

“Headhunt Revisited: With Brush, Canvas and Camera” is a remarkable film reflecting two intrepid women travelers — separated by 75 years in time — striving to document the evolving culture of Melanesia.

Caroline Mytinger was a painter from Cleveland, Ohio. Michele Westmorland is a Seattle photographer and filmmaker.

Decades apart, they ventured to the other side of the Pacific Ocean to Melanesia — one to document what she felt was a vanishing way of life through art, and other to share that art with the descendants living there today.

Melanesia is a vast area of 2,000 islands, covering 386,000 square miles, located northwest of Australia. Four independent nations are located there: Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

The islands were settled by the Melanesians tens of thousands of years ago. Today, they are populated by about 12 million people who speak 1,300 languages — preserved for millennia by the isolation provided by dense jungles and difficult inter-island travel.

Already a noted portrait painter of high society subjects, Caroline Mytinger was fascinated by writing from European explorers and Western anthropologists about the native cultures of Melanesia, and she set out from Cleveland in 1926 to document the faces and clothing of the region through her art.

Only 29 years old, and with very few funds, she found a ship out of San Francisco and boarded with another adventurous woman friend, Margaret Warner. At the time, it was unusual for women to travel abroad without husbands. And though Mytinger was a successful portraitist, her lack of funds speaks to women artists’ lack of status.

Mytinger’s journey also echoed the artistic and intellectual trends of her time. Early modernist artists at the beginning of the 20th century were strongly influenced by French artist Paul Gauguin (1848 -1903) who lived for many years in Tahiti, where he drew his famous paintings of Tahitian life and culture. After he died, his compositions featuring strong female nudes and a bright color palette influenced noted artists like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Other late 19th century artists also had begun to copy African, Asian, South Pacific and Native American forms and styles in their art.

Mytinger pursued her trip to document a way of life that she felt was vanishing. After she returned, Mytinger wrote many articles and held exhibitions about her travels in Melanesia. One of these exhibitions was held at the Seattle Art Museum in 1935. In the 1940s, she also wrote two books “Headhunting in the Solomon Islands” and “New Guinea Headhunt,” both of which received positive reviews and were popular.

After her travels, Mytinger lived in Tacoma and once again painted portraits for prominent families, including the Weyerhaeusers and the Nordhoffs (the founders of the Bon Marche). Later she moved to Monterey, California, her home for many years before she died there in 1980. Her books have long since been out of print and her portraits were put into storage.

Also a woman artist, Michele Westmorland already was a veteran of shooting photos in remote locations around the globe and of underwater photography. About 20 years ago, Westmorland, an international travel photographer, discovered Mytinger’s books. Westmorland tracked down where Mytinger’s paintings had been stored for decades — at the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California in Berkeley.

Michele Westmorland (upper left) and her film crew on location. (Courtesy photo.)

To make this film, Westmorland also delved deeply into the region’s history and culture by reaching out to scholars immersed in Pacific Island study. She spoke to the history-preservationist Dick Doyle, a man of European descent who is a third-generation planter in the region. She also spoke to anthropologist Dr. Andrew Moutu, a Papua New Guinean.

Moutu and Doyle served as guides and interpreters in Westmorland’s extensive travels amongst the islands, as they retrace Mytinger’s steps.

“Dr. Moutu’s help and that of the crew, translating the many languages of the area in addition to understanding cultural differences, was the key to the success of establishing a relationship,” Westmorland told The Seattle Globalist.

Mytinger’s meticulously rendered paintings also were first-person records of the cultures in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands of the 1920s.

“The team also carried multiple prints of Caroline’s paintings to open up dialogue about who and what traditional body décor was depicted in the art,” Westmorland said.

Mytinger’s paintings were so detailed that the family members of people who posed in the portraits were able to recognize their relatives. The scenes in the film in which modern-day Melanesians recognize specific family members as they looked in the 1920s and ‘30s in Mytinger’s portraits are among the most dramatic.

Other scholars interviewed in the film, including Dr. Joshua Bell of the Smithsonian Institution, also provided background research and interpretation of the importance of preserving the cultures of Melanesia.

Many of Melanesia’s cultural practices — such as full tattoos on women’s faces, binding babies’ heads to reshape them, and the headhunting that Mytinger named her two books after — already were being discouraged by Christian missionaries by the time Mytinger reached the islands, despite the crucial role that they played in society. Experts and descendants of warriors told Westmorland in the film that a man could not become a true warrior until he had collected the heads of dozens of foes. Westmorland found sacred graveyards and caves which serve as respectful final resting places of the skulls of the captured fighters.

Westmorland has made dozens of trips to the South Pacific. She has lectured in many parts of the US about the culturally complex process of making “Headhunt Revisited,” and what she calls “the importance of art that spans oceans and decades.”

The world premiere of the film was in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, in 2017; and it’s also appeared in FIFO (Oceanian film festival in Tahiti); the Hawaii International Film Festival, and the Melanesian Arts and Cultural Festival (in the Solomon Islands).

She also wants to share the film with Pacific Islander communities in the Seattle area.

“I will do everything possible to bring this film to Melanesians here in the Pacific Northwest and other locations.”

If you go

“Headhunt Revisited: With Brush, Canvas and Camera,” 7 p.m. Wednesday Oct. 10 at SIFF Film Center, on the Seattle Center campus, followed by Q&A and reception.

A painting by Caroline Mytinger (Courtesy Photo)