Hands through Time — Reaching Out for Help: the Meakambut People of Papua New Guinea

“We, the Meakambut people, will give up hunting and always moving and living in the mountain caves if the government will give us a health clinic and a school, and two shovels and two axes so we can build homes.”

Those are the closing words of a poignant article in the February 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine: “Last of the Cave People” by Mark Jenkins. An NGM team had gone up into the mountains of Papua New Guinea to report on one of the last nomadic cave-dwelling people in the world and found the remnants of a people barely surviving. Sickness, hunger, the sparsity of animals to hunt, infant mortality and an understanding that there might not be a future for them led John Aiyo, one of their leaders, to give this message to the NGM reporter to bring out of the forest and relay to the government.

The article is accompanied by beautiful photographs (which I am not allowed to use here) of a jungle we might easily mistake for paradise. One of the photographs was of hand stencils in a cave painting—the ubiquitous image of hands on cave walls, found throughout the world and throughout time. There is also a photograph of one of the tribesmen painted up, walking through the jungle. This surprised me, because books (see Books Page) such as Man as Art by Malcolm  Kirk and Tribes by Art Wolfe report that the people of Papua New Guinea only paint themselves for festivals—today, most of which are at least in part tourist exhibitions. The article suggests that in this case the men painted themselves specifically because they were heading down out of the mountains with the NGM reporter’s team.

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Why Body Painting? — 3: Origins — Touching Ancient Sources

"Chauvet Lions Watching"

by Christopher Agostino

At the core of my approach to bodypainting is my continuing exploration into its traditional sources and cultural functions. Just as a painter on canvas studies the masterpieces of the past to find his own way forward, I study the images and significance of traditional bodyart as a foundation for my work. Searching for an understanding of how and why we paint ourselves leads back to the origins of our humanity and our most ancient art. Whenever I paint someone I am aware of my small place in this vast tradition, one more human seeking to understand how our art can transform us. Although bodypainting is ephemeral, its legacy is timeless.

The Transformation Lecture - click here

This is a primal part of the story I’ve told myself to keep myself painting, that “before we ever painted a cave wall, we painted ourselves…” — my slogan. Going back 30 years when I was first trying to convince people that facepainting could be an art and not just something that clowns did at kid’s parties this was  an important part of my argument.

You search for validation when you are working in a fringe art form and I continue to get jazzed seeing moments like the one in the PBS Nova episode “Becoming Human” where, just as they are describing the final evolutionary shift that made us the humans we are today they are showing a re-enacted image of an ancient human painting themselves. video.pbs.org/video/2098138008…  Or the book How Art Made the World: A Journey to the Origins of Human Creativity by Nigel Spivey, which makes the case that it is our ability to conceive, record and understand symbols (through language and art) that lifted us above the animal state—”we are the symbolic species”—and he also points to our own skin as the original canvas for these social symbols.

Our skin is the physical edge of who we are, the place where we touch the world, and so, as we first gained self-awareness, that spark of consciousness that makes us human, we marked our new awareness onto our skin to tell the world who we are.  And that is a fine answer to the question “Why Body Painting?”

In The Mind in the Cave, David Lewis-Williams  presents a timeline of the development of ancient art and culture. Cave paintings go back about 32,000 years, but art is older than that. The image here of the etched ochre rock from Blombos Cave from 77,000 years ago is considered the “earliest art object” yet discovered, and  there is evidence of ochre colored earths being processed to produce pigment from much earlier. Pigments derived from ochre are still used as traditional body paints. It’s discovery radically reorganized anthropologists’ understanding of the origins of humanity, and the place in our collective history of our ancient  ancestors at Blombos Cave is a truly remarkable story, as depicted in the PBS “Becoming Human” series. See also the links below for more information, including the incredible recent discovery of what might be the earliest facepainting kit ever.

The bodypainting at the top uses imagery from European cave paintings that are 10,000 to 32,000 years old, and I painted it several years ago. Ancient sources, modern inspiration for this bodypainter.

30,000 year old cave painting from the Chauvet Cave

The most inspirational art exhibit I have seen in many years was while sitting in a movie theater this past May watching Werner Hertzog’s 3D film of the Chauvet Cave in France, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Seeing Hertzog’s film, I experienced art that is as great as anything I have ever seen in a museum, both in the technical quality of the painting (as Picasso said upon seeing similar cave paintings: “we have learned nothing!”) and in the depth of response it requires from the viewer. Through Hertzog’s fantastic use of 3D to bring the physical shapes of the painted cave walls to life, and dramatic flickering “torch-light” effects to recreate the experience of the original audience for these paintings, I could imagine myself there and understand how, at our origins, art was a driving transformational force.

Learn more at my Body Painting Page http://thestorybehindthefaces.com/body-painting/

Ancient Origins – Chauvet Lions Watching

© 2004 Christopher Agostino "Chauvet Lions Watching"

“Before we ever painted on a cave wall we painted on ourselves.”

It’s a line I’ve used ever since the book The Painted Body  by Michel Thévoz (1984) introduced me to the idea that painting ourselves was the first human art. He states that it is the fundamental human art: “…there is no body but the painted body, and no painting but body painting.”

In my desire to reach back to that initial impulse to paint ourselves, I collect images of cave wall paintings and other ancient art. Cave paintings bring animals to life in naturalistic and stylized imagery that use the outcroppings and shapes of the rock walls, in much the same way body artists use the contours of the human form. Much of this prehistoric art depicts human/animal transformations associated with what scholars think may be the shamanist beliefs of early human cultures.

In The Mind in the Cave (2002), David Lewis-Williams  presents a timeline of the development of ancient art and culture. Whereas cave paintings go back 30,000+ years and the earliest “object of art” yet discovered is from 77,000 years ago, there is evidence of pigment processing from much earlier, possibly as far back as 250,000 years ago. That reaches back to the very beginnings of human culture on the plains of Africa, before the modern human race began to spread into the rest of the world. Pigments like those ochre earths are still used as traditional body paints.

When the Paleolithic paintings in the Chauvet Cave were discovered in 1994 they revolutionized our perception of prehistoric art. Before then, cave paintings were dated based on a study of style: the simpler the art the earlier it must be from. Modern scientific dating techniques show that some of the Chauvet  paintings are from 32,000 years ago, the earliest pictorial art we’ve ever discovered. Yet they are rendered with subtle shading, employ complex pigment processing, and varied illustrative techniques including using multiple images to depict movement (in almost a cubist fashion). Some have such a developed naturalistic style that they look like they could walk off the cave wall today.

I did this bodypainting called “Chauvet Lions Watching” in 2004, with images from European cave paintings that are 10,000 to 32,000 years old. I could call it my first fine art bodypainting — though I had painted full bodies before this, those were usually on assignments for clients, experiments with technique or imitations of other bodyart I’d seen. I think this was the first time I ever approached a body as a canvas to express and explore a strong concept I was trying to understand, with the specific goal of creating a single photograph that might be seen as a work of art.

The Chauvet Lions are watching from the lower right hand corner and, remarkably, they are the oldest image here.

Check out the related post:  Werner Herzog – he likes the lions, too.      http://wp.me/p1sRkg-6O   4/22/11

Drawing of horses in the Chauvet cave.

Image via Wikipedia

English: Lions painted in the Chauvet Cave. Th...

Image via Wikipedia

English: Lascaux Caves - Prehistoric Paintings...

Image via Wikipedia