Saturday, March 13, 2010

Headhunting in the Solomon Islands & New Guinea Headhunt by Caroline Mytinger


NEW GUINEA HEADHUNT by Caroline Mytinger, 1946

Awhile back I came down with a nasty cold. I called in sick for many days and decided I needed to read something different. The majority of the books in the Bibliotiki are written by men but a few years ago I picked up Headhunting in the Solomons, which is written by a woman and I thought I needed a change of perspective.

I wasn’t ever really interested in New Guinea, Solomon Islands or even Melanesia but I kept seeing this book in a few stores so I found a hardback copy for $2 and the price was right. I still need a dust jacket though.

I knew nothing about Caroline Mytinger and just started reading it. And then couldn’t stop reading it. Reading about her bouts with malaria made my bad cold suddenly seemed not so bad.

The book is a non-fictional account about a former society girl and artist and her friend Margaret go off to the Solomon Islands to paint portraits of the last remaining pure bred people before they are all gone or blood lines become diluted. I would think when they went in the 1930’s, this was not something people though or even cared about.

They started in San Francisco, then to Hawaii, Fiji, Australia and then the Solomons'. And as with all best laid plans, things went awry. They did get some portraits painted though. The book includes just black and white prints, which doesn’t do justice to the colorful paintings.

After I finished Headhunting, I then moved on to her second book New Guinea Headhunt, which was more of the same only in New Guinea. (full disclosure, New Guinea Headhunt I don’t own and had to get from the library).

Since these books were written in 1940’s, they of course are not politically correct by 2010 standards but I did think in comparing it to other books I have read from that time period, they don’t just lump all the “savages” together and do make a conscious effort not stereotype them or think they are ignorant or dumb just because their way of life is so different then the authors.

While I was finishing the book, my husband started doing some research on it and what we found made me even more interested in the author and story.

First we found this site is done by 2 women who have retraced the books and are working on a film of it. Check out the footage they have on their site, plus their own websites show what amazing photographers they both are.

These women also wrote an article that appeared in the Smithsonian, which you can read online:

And lastly here is a link to Caroline’s paintings at the Phoebe Hearst Museum in Berkeley, CA

Sadly, it appears that the painting aren’t on view.

I love both books pen and ink illustrations, here are some examples.

After reading both books I am amazed that any of the paintings even survived. I found Headhunting more engrossing and New Guinea not as good. I think her weariness shows through in the second book. But overall both books are great stories about strong, independent women. And of course what happens to people who are ahead of their times, when they came back to the states with their paintings, no one cared that much.

Headhunting might be on of my fave books in the Bibliotiki, so much so I think I need to re-read it again.

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