In 1920, Willowdean Handy, then 32 years old, disembarked on an island in the remote Polynesian archipelago known as the Marquesas. A volunteer with the Bayard Dominick Expedition, sponsored by Hawaii’s Bishop Museum, she was there to assist her husband, the anthropologist Edward Handy, who had been sent to study the arts and culture of the islands.
While Edward busied himself with documenting marriage customs and Marquesan myths, Willowdean became fascinated by the art of tattoo. Polynesia is famous for its tattooing, and many believe the art form reached its highest expression in the Marquesas. The French, however, had outlawed the practice in 1884, and by 1920 it was practiced only in secret, if at all.
Initially, the job of documenting the islanders’ tattoos was assigned to one of the men on expedition. But problems quickly arose when he tried to record the images tattooed on the women’s bodies. At this point Willowdean took over, only to realize that the blue-black designs would not show up in photographs, and the only way to document them was on paper with pen and ink.
Willowdean turned out to be eminently suited to the task. An impeccable draftsman, she copied every motif she could find during her 9-month stay in the Marquesas. A collection of these drawings was published in 1922, one of the first books to emerge from the expedition.
In the 1980s, when the art of Polynesian tattoo began its dramatic revival, pages from Willowdean’s book could be found circulating among tattoo artists in French Polynesia. Today it is widely recognized as a primary source and a key piece of documentation of one of the most important dimensions of Polynesian life.
This piece was written by Christina Thompson, editor of the Harvard review, author of Come On Shore And We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story, and the new Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, available March 25, 2019.
A line on the cover of Sea People offers this: “The quest to understand who first settled the islands of the remote Pacific, where they came from, how they got there, and how we know...”
How we know is everything. And thanks to Christina Thompson, we know about Willowdean.
Christina traveled as a Guest Speaker in 2018 on the National Geographic Orion expedition to the Marquesas. In working with her prior to embarkation, we learned a number of fascinating things about Polynesia (as did the guests who traveled with her) and were riveted to learn about Willowdean and her achievement. We Googled frantically for more details and found very few, as Christina knew. Fortunately, she tells us, someone is at work on a biography.
Willowdean deserves far more recognition than she has received to date. She, in many ways, can be credited with restoring a culture to itself—connecting past and future through pen and ink. We appreciate the opportunity to celebrate her.
And we celebrate Christina Thompson, as well. She’ll be traveling aboard National Geographic Orion on the May 21, 2019 Tahiti to Hawaii: In the Wake of Ancient Navigators voyage. A long voyage, it offers the option to disembark in the Marquesas and fly back to Papeete. If interested, find details online or call an Expedition Specialist at 1.800.EXPEDITIONS.
Book to join Christina and we’ll send you a copy of Sea People with our compliments—to prepare you for your Polynesia adventure, and whet your appetite for Christina’s entertaining presentations and company.
Join us for updates, insider reports & special offers.