South American body painting

[b]Left:[/b] From a photograph taken by Dr Elizabeth Ewart, Brazil, June 1997[br][b]Right:[/b] Collected by Laura and Alasdair Burman and donated by Marian Wenzel in 1981; 1981.5.5Left: From a photograph taken by Dr Elizabeth Ewart, Brazil, June 1997
Right: Collected by Laura and Alasdair Burman and donated by Marian Wenzel in 1981; 1981.5.5
Painted women and pottery figure, Brazil

Body painting is a well-known expression of creativity and symbolism among many indigenous South American peoples. For the Karajá and other Gê-speaking peoples of the Amazon region (such as the Panará, Suya and Kayapo), body painting and ornamentation with feathers, jewellery and so on are considered beautiful in both an aesthetic and a moral sense. For these groups, the body is not automatically considered human but needs clothing, paint and ornament to transform it from a 'raw', unsocial being into a 'real', social person. Since sustained contact with the Western world in the 1970s, items such as T-shirts, football shorts, dresses, flip-flops (seen here) and baseball caps have been added to the repertoire of bodily adornment.

In fact, the Panará have always been fascinated by the clothing and belongings of other people, not just of Westerners but of other indigenous groups too. This photograph shows Panará women in a group dance, borrowing both Kayapo body paint designs and songs. There is some individuality behind the largely geometric designs – some with straight vertical stripes, others with zigzags – most of which were painted by the women themselves or with the help of a close female relative. Often the designs are applied with the hands, corn-husk 'brushes' or styli made from palm fronds. The blue-black colour is created using genipapo, leaf-juice dye that goes on clear with charcoal for guidance and dries in a semi-permanent dark colour. The red is a fruit- and oil-based paint that washes off. Some anthropologists have noted that red is the colour used for the peripheral parts of the body, those that act as a sensory interface with the world: the hands, feet and face.

The Karajá people made this figurine, which was probably intended for the tourist market but at the same time embodies a much older native pottery tradition. The Karajá are a self-sufficient group of several thousand people who rely on agriculture and crafts. Among the Karajá it is the women who specialize in body painting and are responsible for painting men, women and children for special ritual purposes. It is women too who specialize in ceramics and in this figure, known as a litxoko or litjoko, these two art forms come together.

Below the raffia loincloth, the figure's rounded thighs suggest feminine fertility and the Karajá elders once made these figures as toys and to teach children about cultural and social customs. Today, however, they are extremely popular with tourists who visit the villages when the beaches are exposed along the Araguaia River (July to September) and the trade in them has become an important means of subsistence for the group. As a result they are often larger and painted with commercial paint. This example was collected by the botanist Alasdair Burman and his wife Laura, who passed it to the donor, noted art historian Marian Wenzel.

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