From 1910, Queen Mutubani of the Mangbetu people being body painted by serving girls — it's good to be the Queen.
By Christopher Agostino
One of the more remarkable photographs of the cultural use of body art is the image from 1910 of a Mangbetu Queen in the book Body Decoration (see Books page for bibliography). As the queen stands in a regal pose she is being painted by several servants. I was reminded of this image last week during the bodypainting preparation for a video shoot. We had 4 dancers to paint. I was the primary bodypainter and there were two makeup artists doing the hair and eye makeup — as they finished with that they would help me paint the bodies. Towards the end all 3 of us were painting the 4th dancer simultaneously, and she remarked about what it felt like to be the center of that much attention. So I told her she should feel like a queen, a Mangbetu Queen.
Bodypainting is an intrinsically collaborative art. The primary collaboration is between the artist and the model, but it isn’t the only one, and that is not the collaboration I am addressing here, for there are often more people in the bodypainting room: assistants, photographers, multiple models to be painted — and spectators. The theatrical and presentational nature of bodypainting often means there is a crowd present watching the process. The ephemeral nature of the art compels us to maximize the amount of time people have to see our work. Whereas canvas painters work mostly alone in studios, we bodypainters make a spectator sport of it.
The Body Painting room for Bodies Alive!
A formative experience for most novice bodypainters is the first time they are at a convention, festival, performance or competition working in a room full of artists painting models. I’d say that this experience, more than any other, is the reason for the growing number of bodypainters in the U.S. — the fun they had, and the inspiration gained, from the sense of camaraderie in a room full of bodypainters drives them to keep doing it. Speaking personally, I find the bodypainting room much more exciting than the painted body fashion show or competition that follows, and especially when the painting being done in that room is all towards a unified purpose. Jam sessions are fun, and I understand the commercial necessities that make so many bodypainting events into competitions, but the ultimate for me is when the painters are all working in collaboration to achieve a collective vision, such as painting those 4 dancers for the video shoot, or the bodypainting room for the Bodies Alive! show at FABAIC 2008 http://www.fabaic.com/ , which I am very proud to have been a part of. We had about 30 primary painters plus many more additional volunteers working collaboratively — for numerous participants it was the first time they had helped to paint a full body, and I’m sure that experience has been a source of confidence as they have continued bodypainting.
In preparation for the stick fighting competitions, Surma men cover their skin with chalk mixed with water and then make line patterns through the chalk with their fingers
Painting bodies is more like performing music than like a studio art. It is a performance art, you certainly need the audience. I think you also want the fun of being part of a band, you don’t paint a body all alone — at the very least it is you plus the model. In its traditional functions, body painting is a social act, a shared community activity. For one thing, you can’t paint your full body yourself, and I believe that in traditional cultural uses (such as the Surma men painting each other in preparation for the ceremonial stick fights, or the Surma women painting together by a river bank for their part of the festivities) the participants experience the time spent painting each other in a unifying, celebratory way — in much the same way bodypainters enjoy the communal spirit of all painting together in a room at a convention. Any time you see an example of tribal or traditional body art, with full bodypainting or intricate designs on the back or the limbs, it is created communally, with the help of another person, and usually a reciprocal social act, as I paint your back and you paint mine.
Women of the Surma gathered to paint each other with colored earths and ochres.
Getting back to the Mangbetu, I have notes in an old journal about seeing an exhibit called “African Reflections: Art from Northeastern Zaire” in 1990 at the American Museum of Natural History www.amnh.org/ of objects from the Mangbetu culture in the Congo region of Africa from around the time of that photo of the Queen being painted. What has stuck with me through the years since that exhibit is that every object — from household utensils like spoons, to clothing, house poles, drinking vessels — every object was a work of art. Including the people, for the exhibit said they would paint each other in intricate and original patterns with dyes made from the gardenia plant that would last a few days, and then be re-painted in new and unique designs. The exhibit displayed a collaborative, ongoing social act to create a world of art.
Again I am reminded of the practice and function of making live music, particularly in a traditional setting, it’s an experience we visual artists don’t get to have in our process much, except perhaps when doing something like bodypainting, in which the process is intrinsically collaborative and the work of art is alive.
Another Mangbetu bodypainting example, from 1937.
From the African Reflections exhibit I saw in 1990, a figure with body art lines — I have a sketch of this figure in my old notebook and found this image searching the American Museum of Natural History web site.
Not to put too fine a point on the communal, egalitarian nature of tribal arts, the text accompanying this image of a Mangbetu male from "Body Decorations" states "the elaborate painting indicated the social superiority of the Mangbetu elite" — so the body art contained social information as it did in most cultures.
An example from the Amazon Txukahamae culture of communal body painting
The Odd Ball in 2009 was another very fun body painting room — see the link to that page below
See my fine art bodypainting at http://thestorybehindthefaces.com/body-painting/ Christopher Agostino