Art That Spans Oceans and Decades
The title of this newsletter is a tagline I use frequently. It says it all, and Headhunt Revisited: With Brush, Canvas and Camera has some extremely exciting news! As you may know, we discovered descendants to four of Caroline’s portrait subjects while on expedition fifteen years ago. I continue to receive the most wonderful comments on how powerful it was to share prints of the paintings directly to family members. We have now discovered a FIFTH !
Dr. Garrick Hitchcock, an anthropologist with Melbourne University, contacted me after coming across a story that was produced in Origin Magazine published in 2015. In the story, a particular image of Caroline’s portrait of Robin from the Torres Strait titled “Kai-Kai”, which means “food” or “meal” in pidgin. The painting was created sometime in 1929. Caroline wrote of her regard for Robin in her book “New Guinea Headhunt”. Garrick’s specialty area is in the Torres Strait!!!
Last September I received a message from Garrick saying that he was getting closer to finding the family. He was as excited as I was that it was possible he actually knows a descendent. Garrick sent photographs of a gravestone and death certificate that began the quest to confirm that Robin was one and the same of this handsome man in the painting. In a message from last September, he said that Robin was from Darnley Island (Erub) and he actually located the family tree. Robin was descended from a chief or headman. I was as excited as ever, knowing that this project continues to “span oceans and decades”.
More research and more time passed and I sent a file for Garrick to print and have laminated as a gift to the granddaughter of Robin. Garrick was back in the Torres Strait at the end of 2019. In early February, 2020 Garrick was planning a trip to Mua Island, next to Badu where Robin’s granddaughter, Gwen Baira, lives.
We were all very excited – then unforeseen circumstances with COVID delayed Garrick’s planned travel. He was able to communicate with Gwen’s husband, Tom, and sent him a small photo of the painting until Garrick can present an actual print as a gift. Tom said that Gwen was “happy to see that photo – then she cry. She last saw her grandfather when she 6 years old.”
The story continues with hopes that Dr. Hitchcock will be able to return to Torres Strait for a face-to-face meeting. I, personally, would like to be there with him. What an extraordinary discovery!
In addition to this exciting news, I’ve been thrilled to discover more talented artists. As you may know, Jeffry Feeger, a Papua New Guinea contemporary artist. also appeared in the film. I’ve been searching for other artists, especially after my assignment to the Solomon Islands last July. It connected me back to John Wayne, also appears in the film. His carving is exemplary.
Now I’m communicating with a young man, Jackson Diosi, whose art resonated with my personal passion of the connection between the Solomon Islanders and the ocean that surrounds their beautiful islands. Jackson is now drafting and sketching ideas utilizing many of my underwater images from the Solomons. As he moves forward, I’ll continue to share his progress on the commissioned piece. I can’t wait to see the finished painting! According to Jackson, “women are the head” in their culture and heritage.
I was happy to provide the film to Jackson so he and his family could all watch it together. I was so touched by the response and I’m sure you will also be moved to celebrate with me that this journey continues for Caroline’s story.
In a message from Jackson he expressed how he and his family felt about the film:
“Hallo Michele, good evening from the Solomons. We just finished watching that very beautiful documentary. Just wanted to tell you this got to be the most beautiful and well directed documentary of culture I’ve ever seen. I’m so proud knowing you because of what you did. So sad seeing this (my) unique culture disappearing very fast. Margaret and Caroline are such an inspiration. So wonderful you traced their footsteps firstly to Solomon then to Papua New Guinea …those Solomon Islands she did are displayed on large printed paper here at our gallery. I always stared at them everytime and wonder what was the story behind it …now I know it felt so touching and I was emotional when I realised religion has made so many changes in our culture.The way she captured all those portraits are very beautiful and each has their own unique story. So is your voyage. I know there aren’t much due to time of that film but I know it was a great trip for you discovering each traces. I felt sorry about the jellyfish sting though. 🙁
Your video has inspired me so much now on keeping the identity I have …so proud of my brother, Jeffry Feeger, that he is doing a great job in that film. If anyone asks me what’s the story behind those paintings at the gallery, I will proudly tell the story of these two awesome women and you an awesome photographer who tells a history of it…it’s like all these black and white photographs I’ve seen and now they have colors. Well done. I’m so proud working with you creating more awesome work of my country in time to come. Thank you for sharing.”
Even in these difficult times of the pandemic, there is joy to be found. Thank you all for following my journey.