Headhunt Revisited in Papua New Guinea
By Mark J. Lukes, Art for Conservation
They encountered sorcery, tattooing, large furry spiders, an island of skulls, and ancient pottery crafts. They rode in a war canoe and learned the spiritual aspect of re-creating a once forbidden headdress. Melanesia is a place of cultural and geographic mystique, something photographers Michele Benoy-Westmorland and Karen Huntt discovered as they traveled the country recreating the adventures of an early 20th century female explorer and artist. The result of their journey is a soon to be published book and documentary film called “Headhunt Revisited.”
With over 850 indigenous languages spread out amongst less than 6 million people, cultural diversity in Melanesia is the norm. Papua New Guinea, listed as one of the world’s least explored countries, is a land that freelance photographer Michele Westmorland fell in love with after her first visit in 1991. And Papua New Guinea is the focus of Westmorland’s current and most ambitious project.
Westmorland’s love for and fascination with this beautiful country has taken her from the exploration of ocean environments to canoeing the Sepik River and meeting with tribes people in the Highland Territory. And her journey led her to discover a little known portrait artist, Caroline Mytinger. In 1926, Mytinger and her companion Margaret Warner set out by freighter from San Francisco bound for a four-year sojourn in the South Pacific. With little more than $600 and a tin of oil paints, Caroline and Margaret set out for the land of cannibals and headhunters. Their objective was to paint portraits of the indigenous peoples of the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea before modern, western culture altered their ways of life forever.
Fascinated by Mytinger’s book New Guinea Headhunt, Westmorland and fellow photographer Karen Huntt, set out to learn everything they could about her journey. Westmorland and Huntt traveled for two months to many of the same villages, photographing and video-taping the existing cultural practices and beliefs. “We hoped to rekindle the spirit of the original expedition and to locate descendants of Caroline’s paintings,” stated Westmorland. “Now that the expedition is finished, the hard work of continued fundraising, writing a book proposal, post-production of a documentary film and organizing an exhibit keeps us busy and challenged.” For a closer look at Headhunt Revisited, go to www.headhuntrevisited.org.
To see some of Michele Westmorland’s photography, go to www.artforconservation.org.
About Michele Westmorland: She is a full time freelance photographer who has created a vast and varied library of imagery from around the world. Her skills in underwater photography have been recognized by a large community of divers and non-divers alike. Her topside photography includes the wildlife, landscape and culture of exotic locations. She is a member of the Explorer’s Club, the Society of Woman Geographers and NANPA and is a Fellow in the International League of Conservation Photographers. She has been published in numerous national and international publications. For more about Michele Benoy-Westmorland see www.westmorlandimages.com