The Story On Our Skin: Looking for Identity — A Racebridges Video

A StoryFace by Christopher Agostino asking the question: Why do we paint ourselves?   #storyfaces


video:  The Story On Our Skin: Looking for Identity Beyond Appearance

I was invited by Susan O’Halloran to create a story for her RaceBridges Storytelling Project to be videotaped at the National Storytelling Conference in Richmond, VA, this past August. I was one of perhaps a couple dozen performers who taped a story that day, one after the other, to add to this growing collection of personal tales of “inspiration, laughter and tears and the ongoing search for the American identity.” See over 100 videos at and learn about this resource for schools and other organizations.

And join in this October 9th, 10th and 11th, when over 70 of these video stories will play as part of the Stories Connect Us All online festival on Facebook (, allowing me and many of the other storytellers to participate in online interactions via questions and comments on the Facebook page. My video is scheduled to be a capstone of the festival, broadcast as the final story on October 11 at 9:30 pm (central time).

The RaceBridges Project asks storytellers to tell personal tales about their experiences with race and identity, and, as a facepainter, my working experience centers on very fundamental questions about the connection between appearance and identity, and what the ability to transform appearance means for personal and social identity, as lensed through my research into the origins and cultural significance of this art of transformation that I practice.


The Text:

“Why do we paint ourselves?”

a StoryFace by Christopher Agostino ©2013

As we humans first became self-aware we began to paint our skin.   Aware of who we are, aware of our place in the world.   Why did we paint ourselves?   The answer may be lost in the black charcoal and white ash of our first fires, in the ochre colored earths of where we first lived — for these are materials still used as makeups.   Was it through such colors that we first saw our skin as a vehicle of identity?   The color red signifies power and vitality in bodyart around the world — from the faces of the heroes in Chinese and Japanese theatre to the ring of red that frames the face of Maasai warriors.   How long has this been true?

When we first marked our skin, was it only as decoration?   Or were they marks of identity?   Could they be read, like the swirls of Maori tattoos, or the iconic symbol worn like a name badge by the Plains Indian, Bull Buffalo?   Were we saying, “look at my skin to know who I am”?  In celebrations of who we are we still paint ourselves, from modern birthday parties to village festivals in the Omo River Valley of Ethiopia.  The young men of the Southeast Nuba would paint their bodies every day in fantastic designs as a celebration of the beauty of humanity — for we are so beautiful that we deserve to be art.

From ancient rituals and the theatre born of them, to today’s incarnations in Halloween and Hollywood movies, the makeup artist brings our dreams, our gods, to life — and our nightmares too — raising us beyond our daily identities into the supernatural, giving form to our aspirations.  As a modern facepainter I’ve learned that more important than what I paint on someone’s face is how that painting makes them feel as the world sees them anew, transformed.

Our skin is the edge of who we are, where we touch the world.   As we paint our skin we transform the way the world sees us to take control of our identity.  Yet there is a duality of understanding that comes through these transformations, for if we can change identity by changing appearance, than we should come to understand that all appearance is transitory, mutable.   A fundamental function of mask and body arts in traditional cultures is as proof that forms can change, that to understand the true nature of the world you must look beyond form, to spirit. You must look beyond the mask.

No matter how many thousands of faces I’ve painted, or what I’ve painted on them, one element always remains the same. The eyes. The human eyes that look back at me, through the mask.  And through the painted mask, everyone’s eyes seem to look the same to me, as I imagine they have always looked since the beginning, when we first became aware.



This “MultiFace” image came from a makeup design I painted on myself in 2006 as the author’s photo in the frontispiece of my book. Around that time, I occasionally used a version of the design in a performance piece for educational settings, in which I painted a volunteer’s face with multiple sections of traditional designs to demonstrate different cultural uses of bodyart.

Learn more about StoryFaces.

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