The American Museum of Natural History announces one of its exhibits, “BODY ART: Marks Of Identity”. The exhibit started on November 20, 1999, and is scheduled to run through May 29, 2021.

The exhibit displays many different artifacts of body art from many cultures as far back as 3000 B.C Although body art does not exactly have a smooth flow through history, the museum endeavors to give the best representation with a “tour” through body art history.

Section I: Introduction

Introduction to the many styles of body art that have taken place throughout history. From decorative but temporary body painting to the more permanent tattooing and scarification, you will get to see a wide variety of body decorations such as:

  • 20th Century painting by George Burchett of his wife, Edith, with her spectacular tattoo-covered body, all of which were done by George himself.
  • Wooden sculpture of an Eastern Nigerian painted woman in all her colorful splendor.
  • Carved wooden stool from Papua, New Guinea, depicting ritualistic scarification practices.

Section II: Origins

Not only did the body art ancients decorate their own bodies, but they also left behind many objects that show examples of the different styles of body modifications they practiced. Origins display some of the earliest findings of evidence of the use of body art in ancient times. Some of the things you will find here are:

  • Ancient Egyptian makeup palette in the shape of a fish dated approximately 3650-3300 B.C.
  • 5th-century Greek vases were painted with figures of Thracian women with tattoos.
  • Ceramic figures of Nayarit painted women dating as far back as 300 B.C.

Section III: Representations

One of the biggest ways that we have seen body art evolve from one form to another is not from our actually seeing these ancient cultures first hand, but by seeing the representations brought to us by others.

Whether these forms of art were perceived in a positive or negative way affects the way the artists will depict what they saw. Representations give examples of these depictions in many forms, including paintings, photographs, and engravings. Some of the displays you will find here are:

  • Prints of original engravings based on American Indian observation in the 16th century
  • Books and engravings depicting the findings of the famous explorer, Captain Cook
  • Film documentary of Nuba men of Sudan who would paint their bodies to influence acceptance from their wives and families

Section IV: Transformations

Far from simple adornment, body art has many times been a part of spiritual and ritualistic practices. Ritualistic body art was very important to many ancient tribal cultures. This is what you will see in Transformations and some of the examples of these rituals are:

  • Painted masks belonging to ancient Indian tribesmen, who wore them as part of animal spirit worship rituals.
  • Borneo “tattoo stamps” were used for creating designs that were believed to protect the wearer from evil spirits
  • A figure of a woman holding an offering bowl depicting a deity decorated with scarification designs

Section V: Identities

Body art, tattooing, in particular, has become an important aspect in society to distinguish one as part of a group or to establish their individuality. Identities are designed to show the visitors the great lengths people have gone to express themselves through body art. This exhibit displays the following:

  • Photographs of elaborately tattooed Japanese men, known for full leg and even full-body tattoos.
  • Displays of facial tribal tattoos of the infamous Maori, who became known as “headhunters” who received high prices for their tattooed heads.
  • Displays of original tattoo “flash” designs dating back to the early 1900’s up to today.

Section VI: Distinctions

More like the way we view body art today, different forms of body enhancement, whether temporary or permanent, are used purely for adornment or to celebrate the passage from one stage of life to the next. Distinctions displays this celebration of life forms such as:

  • Henna (mehndi) display includes photos and actual tools used for an application, used traditionally for Indian marriage ceremonies
  • Wooden figures from Africa displaying men and women with prestigious scarification markings.
  • Native American body art artifacts, including a, painted of a painted Mohawk Chief, and tools used for tattooing.

Section VII: Reinvention

Body art today could almost be considered the “Universal Language”. Crossing over social and economic barriers, it has become a worldwide accepted form of expression, for whatever purpose it may serve. Reinvention, the last section of the museum, ends this tour with a splash of color. In here, you will find:

  • Using today’s sophisticated technology, this display enables visitors to see themselves in a new light. Using body art video projections on mirrored walls, you can actually see yourself adorned in the most colorful body art …….without having to touch a needle.

Photo via Instagram

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