'Sarli and His Woman'
Code: CMMP001
Media: Oil on canvas

Original Painting: oil on canvas, 87cm x 97cm, circa 1928

‘Sarli and his wife, both bush born, lived in the metropolis of Samarai at the eastern tip of New Guinea, because he was in His Majesty's Service (now Her) which is stationed on the tiny island. Members of the Native Constabulary are Papua's finest. They performed invaluable service during World War II as scouts, guides, interpreters and even raiding units. Absolute loyalty to the white "Guv'men" is one requirement but they are also selected for their physical strength and for "stamina, courage, self-discipline and an authoritative personality". For graduates of the Service are appointed headmen (modern word for chief) and returned to their villages to act as intermediary between the Government and village.

Sarli was sent to pose for his portrait by the local Government officer who selected him as best representing the Service. He had once saved a white man's life … but that did not necessarily make him an ideal Melanesian model. He appeared for the sitting carrying a rifle … something no village native is permitted to own … and clad in the uniform of which he was so proud, a dark blue woolen jumper nattily trimmed with red bands! But he also brought his new young wife of whom he was even more proud. He wanted a "pic-a-tur" of her and would pay one s(h)illing for it.

Ordinarily native models were paid for posing with "trade" tobacco, none had ever wanted a picture, nor before had offered cash in any trade. A deal was made: Sarli received a drawing of his wife's head in exchange for her sitting for a portrait. Then after he had watched the painting something was revealed to him. When he appeared to pose for his portrait, the woolen shirt was left off and he wore a superb coral and shell necklace and carried a gourd lime box with a pig tusk stopper, and a spatulate for digging the lime out of the box.

Undeniably these were more decorative than the blue wool, but they were not necessarily products of his own village or even district. A great deal of trading goes on between natives from different areas whenever they converge, and the most that can be said of the artifacts they wear is that they are Melanesian products, and generally of the area in which they are found. The coral necklace could not be identified by island, only that it was an old piece and, because it was made of deep pink coral disks (the most valuable) it was "money". That is, could be used in trade. The gourd lime box and spatulate may have belonged to the wife, for she chewed betel nut and lime is used with the nut. Members of the Constabulary are forbidden betel nut. Origin of the box is unknown but the spatulate was easily identified as having been made in the Trobriand Islands north of Samarai. The black wood, hard as glass and almost as brittle, with shallow incising filled with white paste, and the graceful linear designs, distinguish the expert artisans of this group from all others in the Coral Sea.

The length of the young wife's skirt, her hair style and the all-over tattooing of her body, all proclaim her clan origin. These styles never change, are never borrowed by one group from another. Patterns of the tattooing, especially, are highly individual, the only thing in common being that, because of the pain, only a small unit of the design is applied at a sitting. And everywhere this marks an event in the girl's development; first menstruation, betrothal, first infant, ect. [sic]
The finale of this portrait was the death of the models, even before the paint was dry, in an epidemic of influenza.’

Caroline Mytinger, circa 1928


Image shown is of the authorised reproduction print displayed in the Mytinger Project: One World, Two Visions exhibition

text © The Phoebe A Hurst Museum of Anthropology and regents of the University of California, Berkely

image © The Mytinger Project

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