From African Masks to Abercrombie & Fitch

Abercrombie & Fitch Spring Quarterly 2000 cover, photograph by Bruce Weber

by Christopher Agostino

From early on I was taking inspiration for face designs from the makeup and mask art of other cultures. During  the summer of 1999, I was able to initiate my company of artists in this process as we painted faces in African Mask inspired styles over 8 weekends for the opening of the Congo Gorilla Rainforest exhibit at the Bronx Zoo .  None of the culturally inspired faces we paint can really be “authentic,” removed as they are from the culture that gives them meaning, so taking a traditional art as source material needs to be done with an understanding that we are artists finding inspiration in a visual image and we can claim no ownership of the intrinsic cultural content of that image. During the “Congo Summer” of 1999, I sometimes questioned the propriety of my being a white American in New York painting these wonderful African images, especially on the beautiful black faces they might be said to really belong to. It’s a tricky question I frequently confront as an artist and storyteller whose work includes cultural sources, and I try to be open about it. I was very gratified once when a woman trusted me enough to ask me to paint a Maasai design on her son’s face, telling me that this was his heritage but he knew nothing about it, so she wanted me to paint him and tell him the significance of the design.

Traditional Maasai bodyart, from a photograph by Art Wolfe in "Tribes"

Photo from Art Wolfe's tribes of a decorated Maasai.

Part of the profound beauty of a painted face is that you can’t see the color of the skin beneath. All you see are the eyes — the very human eyes. My explorations into the earliest human art and cultures convince me that we all truly are one people, sharing a universal view of life and our core aspirations, originating in a single fundamental culture — which anthropologists today tell us began with a small group of modern humans in Africa and subsequently spread around the world and diversified. By using cultural images, I believe we remind our public audiences of the unity of the family of humanity.

Whereas all of modern humanity may have sprung from that one, small unified group of humans in prehistoric Africa (perhaps, scientists say, a group of as few as 600 individuals), to use the term today “African Masks” or “African Art” is an inaccurate shorthand at best. Africa is a continent of many diverse countries and ethnic groups, and the mask and body arts of these cultures vary greatly. We found a wealth of images, styles and conceptual approaches to transforming a human face in our search for inspiration as we painted faces at the zoo that summer of 1999, from the rock paintings of the San bushmen of Southern Africa through the abstract spirit masks of equatorial Africa and north to the henna designs of the Berber. I have come to see that the experimentation that summer gave my company of artists a new overall perspective on facepainting as a larger art, including a foundation in stylizing and abstracting designs that take the artist beyond realist imagery.

My photo of the Abercrombie & Fitch model before they costumed him

In October of that year, the photographer Bruce Weber saw me working in this stylized “tribal” approach as I was painting at another New York event, and he hired me to paint a group of models in Florida for the Abercrombie & Fitch Spring Quarterly 2000. The foto he chose for the cover was of a model painted in a spirit mask inspired baboon design I had been experimenting with all that summer.

And it was while I was researching the mask and sculptural arts of Africa that summer that I read about how in 1905 Africa again became a source of inspiration for world culture as traditional sculptures and masks made their way to Paris and changed the approach of a whole generation of Western artists at the dawn of the Modern Art movement. As Frank Willet states in African Art: An Introduction (Thames & Hudson,1993), when masks from Africa were seen by Picasso and Matisse, “the revolution of twentieth-century art was underway.” 

"Spirit Mask" inspired baboon design from that Congo Summer, 1999.

That was a spark that set me into an ongoing exploration of this linkage between traditional and modern art, primarily through a series of fine art bodypaintings in which I blend iconic modern art images with the tribal bodyart and mask images that inspired them: the “Modern Primitive” series.

The first third of my book is about the lessons I’ve learned from cultural sources. To learn about my book, and about the other books mentioned here, go to:

For a related blog post, see: From a mask to a painted face:

The Omo River region in Ethiopia holds several cultures that still maintain some bodyart traditions. These geometric patterns in earth tones may be so different than the facepainting most people are used to, yet they make for very pleasant looking finished faces, and I find people are very receptive to being painted in this way.

This Surma photo from the wonderful book "African Ceremonies" has proven to be a style of design that adult women enjoy wearing. In the photo on the right, I copied the pattern of the original design while altering the colors because I was painting it on a caucasian face.

The designs of Surma males are different, in this example the men have covered their whole bodies in a white clay, then scrape the design into that white base so that their dark skin shows through to make the geometric patterns. In a regular facepainting setting I can't really imitate the scraping technique, so I imitate the pattern instead.

This face painting was for a demonstration on African bodyart for a student group at Columbia University, based on a sketch of Lobi facepainting from the book "Body Decoration".

Combining imagery with a simplified "Tribal" style

Spending 8 weekends working in one style allowed for a lot of possible areas of exploration, including trying faces using just pieces of designs or patterns from African cloth and masks.

Another design from a cultural source that makes a pleasant face for an adult. The original came from one photo I saw of bodypainting among the Loma people for a girl's coming of age ceremony, in which she will be painted in plant dyes that slowly fade over a few weeks, and once they have faded she will be eligible for courtship. Again, though, I have to approach this image primarily as visual inspiration for I have no full understanding of the cultural context.

We have also had the chance to bring an "African style" to theme events at other venues, including the Coney Island Aquarium where I painted these two stylized Starfish faces.

here's my friend Kate painting during the Congo Summer event. Having 10 artists at the zoo for 8 weekends gave me the chance to invite in some guest artists like Kate to work with us and try our Transformation approach.

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