Body Painting

"Body painting helps us regain contact with something inside us that is unfathomable, raw and untouched, something fundamentally and exclusively human that is waiting to be released and allowed to reveal itself."

 Karl Gröning, Decorated Skin

Anthropologists and other scholars have long been fascinated by skin as an interface and platform for non-verbal communication, not only between the self and the outside world (for example, other people, the spirit realm), but also between one's own body and the psyche. Some religious traditions deem marking the body (for example, with paint, tattoo or piercing) a corruption of the 'perfect' human form. However, many others consider those who are unadorned not quite fully human. For them, body art is something that distinguishes humans from the animal world, or from other humans in different groups or clans. The Bafia people of Cameroon might think that a man who is undecorated looks like a pig or a chimpanzee; while the Mbayá of South America say that an unpainted body is an ignorant body.

Paint used on the face has become manifest in the cosmetics of the modern Western world, without which many contemporary women do not feel attractive or fully 'dressed'. Whilst our definition of make-up is rather limited, focussing primarily on the female face and nails, in other parts of the world the boundary between make-up and body painting is very fluid.

For thousands of years, the form and meaning of body decoration has been an expression of a particular culture – for aesthetic reasons, to identify kinship groups, for performance or for ceremony. It is also in a constant state of flux, be it in terms of innovation or modification, repression, decline or revival. Despite these variations indigenous body painting is rarely random or comprehensible in isolation, but instead relates to social, religious or political concepts. It is for this reason that many of the patterns found painted on bodies are found on other objects such as carvings, pottery, weapons, and tools, etc – anywhere that a culture's (or indeed, sub-culture's) particular way of life, philosophy and ideas are reflected and conveyed.

Evidence in rock paintings and engravings show that men and women have decorated themselves since Upper Palaeolithic times (50,000–10,000 years ago). Colours were derived from the natural environment – red and yellow clays (ochres), white lime, black charcoal or manganese, plant dyes, and even insect secretions. Body painting was linked with the development of language, abstract thought and cultural creativity that allowed humans to experience and engage with the world in new quasi-religious ways. As hunter-gatherer societies became more sedentary, body art grew more refined. By the time of the first civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia (Iraq), and Anatolia (Turkey), women of social status had adapted the art of painting the face into a fashion: the make-up case of a wealthy Ancient Egyptian woman contained palettes, paintbrushes, lightening lead powder, egg-white face masks, carmine or red ochre for the cheeks and lips, green malachite eye-shadow, and black kohl for the eyes and eyebrows.

The archaeological record and ethnographic research has revealed that body painting and tattooing were widespread in Pre-Columbian America for different reasons. Prior to colonisation nearly all Native North American tribes employed some form of body painting for occasions such as war, the hunt, rituals and dancing but the art was particularly significant among the prairie peoples such as the Ponca and Osage of Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. It is possible that the body and face paint used by these tribes led to the term 'redskin', which became a generic and somewhat derogatory European term to describe all indigenous American peoples in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Mesoamerica (modern day Central America), deities were associated with different colours; for example, Tezcatlipoca, the Aztec god of the north, was black and Huitzilopochtli was blue. By applying the relevant colours to the body it was hoped to appease the gods who might bestow their blessing in the form of strong children, healthy crops or success in war. On 9 April 1800, during his travels in Venezuela in South America, the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt noted in his diary:

"Red paint is – we could say – the only clothing the Indians use. Most missionaries on the Lower and Upper Ornioco let their Indians paint their skin. I would say here a man of large stature hardly earns for two weeks work enough chica [a type of plant dye] to paint himself red. Just as in temperate climates we say of a poor man that 'he does not earn enough to dress himself' so I have heard Indians say that 'a man is so miserable he cannot even paint half his body'. Some Indians are not content with colouring themselves evenly all over. They sometimes imitate European clothes by painting them on. We saw one at Parurama who had painted a blue jacket with black buttons on to his skin...It was work needing incredible patience. It is all the more amazing [since]...the painting done so carefully washes off in a downpour. Some nations paint themselves to celebrate festivals, others are covered in paint all year round."

Alexander von Humboldt,
 Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent 
(London: Penguin, 1995) p. 194 ff


Sometimes colours have culturally specific meanings. In Kathakali, the pantomime theatre of Kerala in south India, dancers combine exaggerated movement and facial expressions with intentionally un-lifelike coloured face paint to convey their characters' emotions and traits: green for good or noble, red for anger or evil, and yellow-gold for innocence and restraint. Red seems to have a special significance in many parts of the world. It is the colour of blood and therefore emblematic of life, and is also commonly found in the form of ochres and berry juices. In addition, red is the primary colour with the longest possible wavelength perceptible to the human eye, thus providing the greatest visual stimulus. Red is worn by young Nuba men of Sudan, to indicate membership of a particular age group. Red, as a clay pigment and as a synthetic paint, is still worn by many New Guinea tribesmen for initiation and healing ceremonies, religious festivals, hunting expeditions, war, peace-making, and the ritualised exchange of gifts. Red-brown is also the colour of henna, a semi-permanent plant dye traditionally worn by women from Muslim and Hindu communities as a symbol of beauty and betrothal since at least the late Bronze Age.

Photograph of a [i]kathakali[/i] performer in bodypaint - Kerala, India, 2009 (taken by Daniel Burt)Photograph of a kathakali performer in bodypaint - Kerala, India, 2009 (taken by Daniel Burt)

Painting as a way of reconnecting to the dead is also something that breaks geographical boundaries. People of the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea paint masks with patterns that were worn in life by their ancestors, whilst further south in the Western Highland region, Simbu (Chimbu) men paint their faces and bodies with a distinctive and black and white skeleton design. This elaborate form of body decoration is echoed thousands of miles away in an initiation rite in Northern Ghana, where men paint themselves in white clay to resemble a skeleton, consciously reminding those present of the constant threat of death and disorder in the world.

In Western societies, body and face painting were for a long time confined to the realm of actors or circus performers. Yet it has been suggested that tribal body decoration influenced many of the developments in Western art from the early 20th century, including Cubism, Constructivism and Surrealism. Since the 1960s more liberal attitudes towards self-expression, nudity and artistic licence has led to a growth of body painting as an art form and hobby. There are body painting competitions and festivals all over the world, notably the annual World Bodypainting Festival in Austria, which is the biggest event of its kind drawing tens and thousands of visitors. In contrast, there are some indigenous communities in the world for whom traditional forms of body decoration are no longer culturally relevant or necessary but who artificially extend such practices for the benefit of Western audiences, motivated by cultural pride, assertions of political status, financial gain and tourism.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England