'Smoke Spello'
Code: CMMP003

Original Painting oil on canvas, 83.5cm x 95.5cm, circa 1928

‘The youth in the foreground is not playing a musical instrument as might be supposed. The bamboo tube is a pipe and the attentive interest of the other is because he will get the next "pull" on it as soon as the first boy has filled it with smoke.

The sealing cross section which is at the joints of bamboo is left on one end and the other is cut out. At the time the pipe is ornamented … which is done by burning … a small hole is burned clear through toward one end just large enough to receive a cigarette. Tobacco is grown by the New Guinea natives but "trade", that which is sold in the white man's store or received as part of wages, is preferred. It comes in a stick and is the gummy consistency of chewing tobacco and indescribable flavor. To draw in a pipeful of smoke from this always-mouldy substance wrapped in a leaf takes time and lung power. When the one who has finally got the tobacco burning has had a draught, he quickly claps his hand over the open mouth end of the pipe and passes it to his companion who repeats the procedure. Smoking has all the appearance of a ritual, indulged in dead earnest and in leisure time, the "spello".

Absence of body ornaments … save the armbands which are worn until they are outgrown … and the hair arrangements indicate that the two Motuans are having a spello from duties. He with the pipe is en deshabille; like a housewife in her curlers, he still wears his "nightcap" which is put on to preserve the perfect spherical shape of his coiffure. The other youth has his hair tied up in a pompom which is the way of keeping it under control when he is at work. Both will let their hair down late in the afternoon. Released, it forms a great ball which is kept fluffed up to its fullest height by the comb which one carries stuck in the hair band, and the other in his armband. They also do a great deal of scalp scratching with these combs.

The overhanging branch is a papaya tree growing at an acute angle to reach the sun as all vegetation does along the borders of a cleared area. To a horticulturist it has another freakish feature in bearing both fruit and blossoms at the same time. But the papaya is not indigenous to these islands and freakish things develop in imports introduced into the hot moist climate of the Equator where the soil is feet-deep humus. Corn, for example, shoots up higher than the elephant's eye overnight, ears sprout but never develop into edible corn and the kernels, even when it is seed corn, seem to be sterile. String beans, on the other hand, grow so large and tough on the Jack's beanstalks, they must be snatched from the vines at the exact moment moment [sic] in their development or a few hours later or they will be all pod and no bean.

There is an agriculture experimental station at Rabaul which attemps [sic] to grow familiar vegetables, but their results have not persuaded white residents to grow their own. They still prefer their food from cans. Nor are the natives convinced. Their staples are yams and sago (tapioca) made from the pulp of the sago palm and even when the station is successful with temperate zone vegetables, it is difficult to change the diet and persuade the native to use the modern methods necessary to grow strange foods. Meantime, there is some doubt whether vegetables grown under the dense steam that hovers over the Equator have sufficient nutritive value to be worth the attention they require.’
Caroline Mytinger


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

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

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