Australian body painting

[b]Left:[/b] From an image taken by Howard Morphy at Trial Bay, Northern Territory, Australia in 1976.[br][b]Right:[/b] Purchased from E. Clement in 1898; 1898.75.61 .1–.3 and 1898.75.60Left: From an image taken by Howard Morphy at Trial Bay, Northern Territory, Australia in 1976.
Right: Purchased from E. Clement in 1898; 1898.75.61 .1–.3 and 1898.75.60
Boy with painted face and samples of ochre, Australia

For generations, the aboriginal peoples of Australia have used red and yellow ochres – pigments derived from clay tinted with mineral oxides – to paint rocks, wood, the ground, and their own bodies. For these communities, body painting is not simply about artistic creativity but is a fundamental activity linked to conventions, religion, laws and communication.

Traditionally, body painting was used alongside more invasive practices such as scarification and tooth avulsion to celebrate the rites of passage from birth until death, although the latter are no longer practiced. The rites still denote an important change in social status however and are normally accompanied by religious ceremonies. The most important rite for a young boy is his circumcision ceremony.

In this photograph, taken on the coast of the Northern Territory in the 1970s, a boy aged eight or nine is one year away from his circumcision ceremony proper. In this 'trial run' he is getting used to lying still for long periods of time, since it takes up to six hours to apply the designs to his face and chest with a thin hair-brush.

The designs are not random groupings of dots and lines but a readable language of clan identity. They are also marks of the ancestral beings that created the landscape and its creatures long ago during the Dreamtime, a mythical time far beyond the reaches of living memory. The designs were first evoked, worn and used by the ancestors so they are not simply representations of the ancestral past but manifestations of it. When people paint themselves with these designs, they are emulating their ancestors and able to participate fully in the world as creative beings. The designs on this boy's face show where he is from, his spiritual connection to the ancestral being, and to which clan group he belongs. Many years later, these designs will be repeated on his body immediately after death as this is vital to assist the soul of the deceased in reaching its appropriate ancestral dimension.

In most instances of Aboriginal culture, the body is painted for ritual reasons but in some places, such as among the Walpiri living north-west of Alice Springs, women also paint each others' bodies with quite different designs for sexual reasons, to celebrate their femininity and appeal to men. A man may also paint a new wife to keep her faithful.

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