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

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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 RaceBridgesVideos.com 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 (www.Facebook.com/StoriesConnectUsAll), 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.

 

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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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2012 Transformations — Face Painting Gallery

by Christopher Agostino

Faces, and a few bodypaintings, from 2012. Mostly by me and some by our company members.With the exception of the bodypainting models, all of these are photos of regular people painted at events around New York. The photos are arranged by name, rather than chronologically, so this year it starts with aliens and ends up with zebras and zombies. The names I give designs help me sort and find them, and also help me remember new ideas while I’m working. It’s very rare these days that I ask someone what they want to be before I paint them. Almost always I’m surprising them, which means I need to have lots of my own ideas ready, so I bring a list of names  as a reminder of design concepts. And it’s very helpful to have a name for what you’ve just turned somebody into, especially when you are being inventive. Part of the fun of surprising someone is talking to them about what they are becoming to build the anticipation, giving them the story.

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Click here for the slideshow:  2012 Transformations Video  music by Jeremy Agostino

The 2012 Transformations Gallery:

click on the photos to see the names of the images

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Saraswati shows up at the Cincinnati Art Museum

by Christopher Agostino www.agostinoarts.com

In Cincinnati for the National Storytelling Network Conference, I got a chance to go to the Cincinnati Art Museum. A special exhibit on musical instruments included a “Mayuri” from India, a stringed instrument fashioned in the shape of a peacock in reference to the goddess Saraswati — combining two of her iconic representations. Nice to see her again, so soon after painting her.

At the museum, a minor kerfuffle. I had particularly wanted to see the current exhibit “The Collections: 6,000 Years of Art“, displayed in an old-fashioned cabinet style, with lots of unlabeled stuff side by side in jammed glass cabinets. Towards the end I saw a piece of painted pottery from ancient Greece depicting Heracles Continue reading

Saraswati — Body Painting at FABAIC 2012 with Kryolan Aquacolors

"Saraswati, Goddess of Knowledge" — painted on May 24 at FABAIC 2012

by Christoper Agostino    www.agostinoarts.com

For my first demonstration painting at the Kryolan booth at the Face and Body Art International Convention this year, I chose a design to fit the convention’s Bollywood theme. Saraswati is a goddess of knowledge, a very ancient figure of Indian mythology, named after a river. This body design is derived from a more complex one I have yet to paint, which includes some of the intricate linework of the face and body art for the Theyyam Festival in the Kerala region of India. That complexity is only alluded to here in simplified form in the face design. This body painting is done with Kryolan’s Aquacolors, including Interferenze Copper and Bronze. Continue reading

Folktale: The Origins of Moko, the Maori Face Tattoo from New Zealand

by Christopher Agostino

My wife brought me a book of Maori folktales from the library: Land of the Long White Cloud: Maori Myths, Tales and Legends by Kiri Te Kanawa; © 1989; Arcade Publishing, Inc., New York. She came across it while looking for stories for a show she will be creating at an elementary school. The author introduces each tale briefly, writing about how she might have heard such stories as a child and what she imagined about them. The bio notes also explain that Kiri Te Kanawa is a famous opera singer and made her debut at the Royal opera House, Covent Garden, in 1971.

The tale “Mataora and Niwareka in the Underworld” especially caught my attention, as it offers a folkloric explanation for the origins of moko, the traditional facial tattooing of the Maori. In brief: a warrior chief named Mataora meets some beautiful women who come up from the Underworld. They tell him that the designs he has painted on his face are not true moko because they can be wiped off. He falls in love with Niwareka, winds up following her back down to the Underworld and meets her father, who is busy tattooing a young man’s face with a fine bone chisel. Mataroa sees that the process is excruciatingly painful but the man doesn’t cry out. Ue-tonga, the father, then tattoos Matarao’s face with “the intricate patterns, twirls and swirls” that make a warrior “look both frightening and beautiful.” Mataroa understands he must bear the pain bravely to receive the true moko, and afterwards he brings the tattoo tradition (and Niwareka) back up to the Overworld.

I’m fascinated by the idea in this tale that the Maori first painted their faces with the moko patterns before they used tattoo, Continue reading