'Big and Little Buka'
Code: CMMP004

Original Painting: Oil on canvas, 48cm x 64cm, circa 1928

‘Buka is the native name for Bougainville, the largest and next to the most westerly of the Solomon Islands. It and a small island which lies northwest are known as Big and Little Buka. Big Buka has mountain peaks eight and ten thousand feet above sea level, and the rugged interior is still not under Government control. The people living in these secure highlands may be the true aboriginals of the Group, unadulterated by the infiltrations of other races that modified the type of the Melanesians of the less formidable eastern islands. In any case, they still have one primitive custom, that of head binding, which is not practiced elsewhere in the Coral Sea islands today.
Only the heads of boy infants are bound and the rather lengthy process is begun shortly after birth when the cranium is wound with palm raffia, a fibre which is soft but very tough. The bindings are not tightened but additional layers are put on from time to time to strengthen the original ones. In this way there is no extraneous pressure to make it intolerable to the baby. Finally, when the membranous spaces … present on the top of every infant skull … are closed and the bone no longer malleable, the deformity is fixed for life and the shape of the entire head has been altered from normal. The brain vault has taken on an elongated mellon [sic] profile which crowds forward the thinner bones of the face, still in the process of maturing. Brow and eyes protrude, air passages are obstructed and nose and mouth take on an adenoidal expression accompanied by mouth breathing.

Later, during the initiation rites of puberty, the boy's elongated head is given emphasis by plucking the hair of the forehead back from the natural hairline, and he dons the lantern-like headpiece. This remains on while the hair grows and fills it. Finally, coming through the interstices of the disintegrating hat, it is the only thing that holds the frame together and in place. Eventually the initiation headpiece is replaced by one of the same shape but of undyed and wider palm leaves.

There is no information as to whether deforming the head in this way affects intelligence. (How intelligent would the native have been had his head not been bound!) Assuredly the mouth breaking goiterish-adnoidal features do not make a long headed native look bright. An old man appears dim sighted as well, because the lids of the eye almost close over the bulging eyeballs. A child still wearing the bindings is just as lively as his female contemporaries, and no more fretful than the average Melanesian child in the presence of the white faced stranger.

Apart from the village (in this case) is a clearing where the secret puberty rites are held and the great pig feasts and dances which women may not attend, nor even see. Even in midday there is an uneasy gloom here because of the great height of the surrounding forest and smallness of the clearing … not more than a hundred feet wide. In the center is the "house bello", merely a thatched roof supported by large posts, under which are the "bello", great log drums ranging in size from a foot in diameter to over two and up to six feet long. The "sing" of the largest when beaten rumbles out through the hollow forest for great distances. Adding to the eeriness is the dead silence that follows as the sound of the drum dies away; even the birds wait. The eyeless skulls of great boars, skeletons of bygone feasts, that cover the posts to the roof, look almost as vicious as when they are alive.’
Caroline Mytinger

Text © The Phoebe A Hurst Museum of Anthropology and regents of the University of California, Berkley
Image © The Mytinger Project

Image show is the authorised reproduction print on display in The Mytinger Project: One World, Two Visions Exhibition


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