In much the same vein as he was striving to express the 'essence' of his home country, Nolde was searching to understand the primeval world of non-European cultures. He had embarked on writing the introduction to a book on 'the artistic expression of primitive peoples' in 1911 which was illustrated by his own crayon and pencil sketches after objects in the museum of ethnology in Berlin. In 1913, he and Ada were invited to join the 'Medical-Demographic' expedition sponsored by the German Imperial Colonial Office bound for New Guinea. Via Russia, they travelled through Korea, Japan, China, the South-Chinese Sea, and eventually arrived in Rabaul, where they stayed for almost a year. In New Guinea, Nolde painted about nineteen oil paintings and numerous large, luminous watercolours of native heads and village scenes, as well as about 250 small pastel sketches of tropical plants, flowers, lagoons or natives. The South Seas watercolours stand out in the artist's body of work for their vivid colours, great vivacity and spontaneity, and have evidently been created sur le motif, in the very short time available when the artist was confronted with a special motif. Nolde was acutely aware of the impending destruction of this 'paradisiacal' world and its contrast with Western civilization: 'Primordial men live in harmony with their natural environment and are a part of the whole universe. I sometimes feel that only they are still real human beings, whereas we are close to being deformed manikins, artificial and full of arrogance' (Emil Nolde, Welt und Heimat, Cologne 1965, p. 88).
The outbreak of the First World War forced the expedition to return, but the impressions of this exotic trip strongly resonated with Nolde, resulting in renewed treatments of South Sea subjects, masks or Chinese junks after his return to Northern Friesland.