From African Abstraction to Modern Art — Huntington Arts Council Workshop

I’ll be presenting a workshop on the journey from masks to modern art  — #modernprimitive — for the Huntington Arts Council on October 2.  I am re-posting here the notice from the Long Island Arts Alliance that this workshop will be a signature series event of this October’s Arts Alive Festival:

Cultural Arts Workshops:
African Abstraction &
Modern Art Intertwined


Wednesday, October 2, 2013 4:30 – 7:30 PM 

Huntington Arts Council 
213 Main Street
Huntington NY 11743  

Christopher Agostino – visual and performing artist is the author of Transformations! The Story Behind the Painted Faces and his work has appeared on TV and on magazine covers.  He will display examples of mask and makeup art traditions of different cultures in Africa.  The social function of masks and body arts will be examined and how these “primitive” arts influenced the revolutionary approach of Picasso, Matisse and the other early “modern” artists.  Participants will design a mask and observe Christopher’s face painting technique.    FREE for participating JOURNEY district teachers, $20 for general public and other teachers.

To register online: or email:  or call (631) 271-8423 X14. Learn about the full line up of workshops at: Huntington Arts Council

This is an Arts Alive LI Classic Signature Series event.

– See more at Arts Alive LI:

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Destroying the Traditional Nuba People—George Clooney Brings Attention to the Nuba Mountains

Southeast Nuba traditional body painting

George Clooney had himself arrested to bring attention to the one-sided warfare being inflicted by the northern Sudanese government on the people of the Nuba Mountains—and he has done much more than that, he has set up the Sudan Sentinel Project to monitor the ongoing human-rights abuses. The crux of the problem is that the Nuba Mountains are located north of the newly created border with Southern Sudan, though the people there are aligned with the southern Sudanese. New Yorker online: FREEING SUDAN—AND GEORGE CLOONEY

The traditional body arts of the Nuba have been a major inspiration for my work (see related articles below). In addition to the destructive actions of years of civil war and government aggression, their traditions have long been under cultural attack. In my research for the article on the Nuba for my book in 2005, I read in a National Geographic Magazine that the body art traditions have pretty much vanished from their culture. The religiously conservative Sudanese government was against traditional nakedness and bodypainting, and were working to eradicate those traditions—a primary method they were using was to put satellite TVs into community centers, to lure younger members of the tribal groups into a fascination with modern culture and away from their traditions. Continue reading

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.…  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

Halloween Face Painting — Halloween Night: NYC Parks and Recreation

Zombie Princess - this girl wanted to look spooky, and her friend was joking with her that she must be confused, because she was wearing princess jewelry, so I made her a Zombie Princess

After the weather-frustrated weekend I was very glad to finish up this Halloween painting faces in the type of situation I really enjoy, for lots of kids and adults at a New York City Parks Department Recreation Center, with enthusiastic kids who don’t often get the chance for facepainting and adults as likely to sit down as the kids, because they want to have fun too as they accompany their kids trick-or-treating. Just as we were starting to set up some kid in a costume came in to ask what we were doing and when I said we’d be painting faces he yelled out “great!” and ran out of the room to tell the others. And we had just enough of a crowd to keep us busy but not too busy to have to hurry the faces.

It being the actual Halloween night, most of the adults and many of the kids wanted to be spooky. I painted the Zombie Attack idea again, which is what I like to do with new ideas: repeat them several times in a row at different events to make them familiar enough that I can retain the concept in my repertoire. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I like to use Japanese and Asian theater make-up concepts for demons and vampires, particularly on women that want to look scary because these designs can still be exotic and attractive (rather than gory). The “Kabuki Demons” and “Chinese Opera Demon” are those kinds of faces, loosely inspired by traditional makeup designs.

Hope you had a wonderful Halloween!

Kabuki Demon 1

Kabuki Demon 2- she and Kabuki Demon 1 planned on going around together so i gave them related faces. The kids they were with were cute little princesses, one of whom was frightened to see her Mom look scary, so we talked a bit about how looking scary on Halloween is a way to get over being scared of spooky things.

Kabuki Demon 3

Chinese Opera Demon

Tropical Sunset - the type of design we call "personal classics" in our company lingo, meaning a design you do that you know always works

Moon and Stars

Pink Cat - yes, I do occasionally paint cat faces

Matisse Blue Dancer - simple designs like this show the beauty colors can have all on their own

Silver Swirls - she had silver eye makeup and didn't want me to mess with it, so I extended the concept in a decorative design

Zombie Attack, again


This staff member wa sone of the last people I painted, as ebverything was starting to close down. He was talking to everyone about how he was going out to a big club Halloween party, and he was talking the whole time I painted him about wanting to be a homeless vampire zombie punk

Alien Demon 3 Eyes

The Nuba Bird Dance at Bodies Alive! – Nao Dance Collective

The Nuba Bird Dance, performed by the Nao Dance Collective as part of our Bodies Alive! show at the Face and Body Art International Convention (FABAIC) in Orlando, 2008 — in black and white bodypaint designs based on the analytical sketches of James C. Faris in his book "Nuba Personal Art"

by Christopher Agostino

The underlying creative intention behind Bodies Alive! was to explore how movement and performance can bring bodyart to life, so we sought to create a modern dance piece inspired by bodypainting. In any previous opportunities I’d had to bodypaint dancers for performance my task was to create designs to support an existing theme and concept. For this dance the makeup design came first.

Nao Dance Collective  is a structured improvisational company under the direction of Linda Eve Elchak — just the kind of group we were looking for to create a brand new piece for a single performance. We discussed the project and I sent the music, sketches for the bodypainting and some insight about the functional effect of this type of tribal bodyart: that the use of hard-edged  geometric designs is intended to break the human form and destroy recognizable individual identity, and thereby create a new unified tribal identity. I suggested the dancers could take advantage of this visual confusion by contrasting movement as a group with movement as individuals. From that, they created the piece. It was thrilling for me to see what these elements had led to in the rehearsal before the Orlando show. We didn’t paint them for the rehearsal, so they had some concerns about what performing in bodypaint would be like, particularly if they had to be careful not to smudge it by touching each other — and I reassured them that I wanted the paint to be alive, to change and to smear and to transfer from one dancer to another as it would in a tribal dance.

The dancers were painted by a group of experienced bodypainters following my designs (see their foto below, and the video of the bodypainting room). Bodies Alive! required the participation of dozens of models and performers, along with teams of designers, painters and assistants — a resource we might only have found at an event like the Face and Body Art International Convention (FABAIC) , celebrating it’s 10th anniversary this year, and I will be there again.

Putting the music together for this piece involved some serendipity. Although I wanted something tribal, I was taking these body designs so far out of their original context that I didn’t want anything directly connected to the Nuba or African culture. The chant is listed as “Kecak: The Ramayana Monkey Chant  from Bali” on a cd of Indonesia music from Nonesuch Records‘ Explorer Series Once you hear it, it stays with you. I had it stuck in my head for this, but didn’t think it was enough to build the dance around and was looking for alternatives when I heard “Surfer Bird” by The Trashman on Bob Dylan’s radio show. The pieces fit, the rhythm was right and there is that iconic Nuba face design of the ostrich over the eye to seal the deal.

See the previous post, and search “Nuba” on this site for more information.

Nuba Bird Dance Painters: Paola Paredes-Shenk, Leah Reddell, Kerry Ann Smith, Diane and Theresa Spadola, Pam Trent, Jeff Edney, Deidre MacDonald

Learn more at my Body Painting Page