StoryFaces — Visual Arts and Mask Workshops

Follow-up a StoryFaces Assembly Program with Classroom Workshops

Christopher’s surprising performance allows him to introduce students to complex educational concepts in an entertaining way in follow-up workshops for grade levels 2 – 12. The unique combination of visual and language arts at the heart of StoryFaces exemplifies using multiple strategies to communicate your story and demonstrates the power of art to convey social information, to retain and synthesize traditional wisdom, and to inspire — making this an ideal vehicle for workshops developing communication, visual storytelling and critical thinking skills. A variety of programs are available including mask design workshops and interdisciplinary programs combining ELA, Visual Arts and Social Studies in which students write stories and apply critical thinking to synthesize these stories into visual mask designs. Programs include:

•  My Amazing StoryFace Workshop  – telling a story through words and art 

•  Designing Tribal Masks – using symbology to bring ideas to life

•  Create Your Personal Superhero – a motivational mask arts program

and two special programs for Middle and High School:

             •  From Masks to Modern Art – a fascinating art history program 

             •  World Theatre Makeup – for theatre, art and fashion students

Classroom programs can be custom designed  in consultation with art teachers to fit a school’s curriculum goals.

*** Professional development workshop programs also available for teachers ***

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Workshop and Demonstration Programs include:

My Amazing StoryFace Workshop

This activity gives students their own experience in visual storytelling, as they create an original story starring themselves, first through a drawing exercise, and then as a written story meant to be told  — based on one of my original stories (see The Amazing Face Video). For the drawing, students use a special Drawing Form in which they draw a cartoon picture of themselves in the story — just like the image I create in my performance.    Grade Levels: In Elementary schools, grades 2 and up have been able to complete the StoryFace drawing and a simple written story in a single workshop session.  In Middle and High Schools the concept of placing a portrait of yourself into an illustrated story can continue into a visual art project by incorporating other media, digital art, animation, etc. Please see the MyAmazingStoryFace_TeachersGuide  for full information.

Designing Tribal Masks

This project gives students an experiential understanding of the traditional approach to art in tribal cultures as they apply critical thinking to create an animal mask design using symbols to signify the animal — in a way that even elementary students can understand. This “mask-concept” approach moves the design process away from realism and illustration, into an exploration of communicating through symbolic art and abstraction, and can be a vehicle for creating original mask designs for students with any level of art skills. Grade Levels: Grades 4 and up have been able to complete a pencil sketch design for a Tribal Animal Mask in a single session, this design can be the basis for a mask-making project in subsequent art classes. Please see TribalMaskProject_TeachersGuide  for full information.

Creating Your Personal Superhero — Spirit Healing Masks

This is a unique interdisciplinary workshop program I’ve developed to get students to work on using critical thinking to synthesize and communicate information visually, through signs and symbols, in reference to the traditional role in some cultures of Spirit Masks that allow performers in rituals to represent ancestors and other powerful healing spirits that protect the people — kind of like our superhero movies. For Grade Levels 6 and up: To start, I ask each student to identify some social concern they would like to help solve — it can be anything, from the obvious ones such as “ending war” to smaller scale concerns, such as “helping stray dogs”. Next they determine what “powers” they would need as a “healing spirit” to achieve this task, and I present this via the idiom of modern superheroes —i.e., would you need to be able to fly in order to end war all around the world?  The students then choose a color or graphic symbol to represent each of the powers or “attributes” their character has, and they design their Personal Superhero mask using those symbols — this step moves the design beyond an illustrative approach towards symbolism and abstraction, as the mask will communicate information purely through colors and graphics, giving students an experiential understanding of the thinking process that underlies visual arts, including modern art, and also allows any student to make a successful design regardless of their drawing skills. The process can also include a writing assignment —  for example, students can write essays to accompany their designs, in which they describe the social concern, or find media links to examples of this problem, and develop a storyline for how their Personal Superhero/Healing Spirit will solve the problem. Please see SpiritHealingMask_DesignForm

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From Masks to Modern Art — for Middle and High Schools

Picasso/Nuba — a synthesis of a Picasso cubist portrait and a traditional design of the Southeast Nuba of Sudan

Picasso/Nuba — a synthesis of a Picasso cubist portrait and a traditional design of the Southeast Nuba of Sudan

This is a unique and fascinating program giving students a vehicle for understanding the origins of Modern Art by exploring how artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Klee found inspiration in the masks, sculptures and bodyarts of cultures in Africa and Oceania as they sought to create more powerful art forms with greater social impact — what the art historians call “Primitivism in Modern Art”. After viewing African sculptures in the Trocadero Musuem, Paris in 1907, Picasso is reported to have said: “Men had made those masks and other objects for a sacred purpose…At that moment I realized that this is what painting was all about…it’s a form of magic…a way of seizing power…When I came to this realization, I knew I had found my way.”

Art changed at the beginning of the 20th century in large part because these early Modern Artists saw that in traditional cultures art was not confined to being beautiful or decorative, but rather that traditional art and artists played a vital role in maintaining the social fabric of the community — that art could have the power to communicate complex social and political ideas and help make a better world.

Christopher Agostino has also explored this seminal moment in art history through a dramatic series of fine art body paintings: Modern Primitive Art

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World Theatre Makeup — for Theatre, Art and Fashion Students

From the very beginning of human culture we have used makeup and masks to transform our appearance and create a new identity. As ancient ritual evolved into theatre, makeup remained as the way for an actor to present an identity beyond their normal self. It is especially evident in non-western theatre, such as the Chinese Opera or Japanese Kabuki in which fantastically painted faces transform performers into gods, demons, heroes and all kinds of creatures to bring myths to life. Today, traditional designs are a source for creating theatrical magic in productions like Julie Taymor’s Lion King (with makeup based on Maasai body art) and in the fantastic special effects makeup that brings aliens and superheroes to life in Hollywood movies. Christopher Agostino uses makeup and mask art from world cultures to present the story of this fundamental art from ancient origins to modern theatre in this fascinating performance/lecture illustrated by his amazing facepainting on audience volunteers.

The participants from a Transformational Makeup lecture at the U.S. Institute of Theatre Technology Conference (USITT) in Houston, 2008.

The participants from a Transformational Makeup lecture at the U.S. Institute of
Theatre Technology Conference (USITT) in Houston, 2008.


Transformation Facepainting for Arts-In-Education Events

Our professional company of artists present facepainting in an educational context using styles based on World Masks, Tribal Faces, Native American Totem concepts or cultural traditions from regions around the world, such as Dia De Los Muertes or Amazon Indians. The same artists seen at the Bronx Zoo and Tri-State area events can facepaint students to create a uniquely memorable cultural experience that goes far beyond how much fun they will have. Events can be tied into assembly programs and to specific cultural regions or areas of Social Studies.


Makeup Artists for School Theatrical Productions

Transformation Facepainting for a school production of the Lion King

Transformation Facepainting for a school production of the Lion King

Our artists are also available to paint the faces of student performers for theatre productions and other special events. Bringing in professional artists is a thrilling experience for a young actor and a great confidence boost that makes a school production extra special.


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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

Shipibo – Conibo – Stetebo: Patterns cover the Universe

Face pattern from the Conibo culture. (Photo from the book "Body Decoration" by Karl Gröning)

by Christopher Agostino

The intricate rectilinear and curvilinear designs that cover the faces, clothing, houses, ceramics and other objects of the cultures on the Ucayali River of the upper Amazon in Peru derive from the origin of the world, when everything in the universe was covered with such lines in a continuous unified design. The original patterns were lost, or obscured, due to misdeeds of failed proto-humans, but they are still present everywhere if one can see them. Male shamans can reclaim the patterns through hallucinogenic visions and relay them to artists who bring them back into the world through the decorations they create on objects. The women artists are aided in realizing the intricate patterns by placing the colorfully veined leaf of the iponquene plant over their eyelids before they start — the plant is named after a complexly patterned armor-headed catfish. These harmonious designs are associated with human cultivation and prosperity. In rituals, shamans can sing the tunes of songs from this labyrinth of lines.

How’s that for “the story behind the faces”, huh? And it is a story that keeps growing, as I encounter additional information about these cultures, the Shipibo, Conibo and Stetebo, which are related cultures in the headwaters region of the upper Amazon. The story above is pieced together from the Marks of Identity exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History , from the information in the book Body Decoration by Karl Gröning (see “Books” page on this blog), and from the current Infinity of Nations exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian

Shipibo pottery

The Infinity of Nations exhibit (which spoke specifically of the Shipibo) added some fascinating pieces to the puzzle. For one, that women are the primary artists, which is rare amongst indigenous cultures, and that bit about how they put a leaf on their eyelids to enhance their ability to make the patterns — which fit in so perfectly with the previous information I’d gleaned about the connection between these patterns and cultivation. It also described the technical process of creating the distinct glossy appearance of their pottery, which is achieved not by a fired glaze, but rather by coating the pot with a special tree resin while it is still hot from the kiln so that the resin fuses with the clay surface.

Wooden doll, Shipibo culture, from Infinity of Nations exhibit. The exhibit text states: "Although this doll wears bodypaint, Shipibo people never paint their full bodies, but only their faces, necks, and the tops of their hands and feet.

Like so many native cultures, their traditional lifestyle has been disrupted by the modern world, as commercial fishing companies have moved in to their region and harvested so much of the fish that the Shipibo can no longer feed themselves (as relayed by a member of the tribe in a film at the exhibit). They have turned increasingly to selling ceramics and attracting tourism as a way to survive. Do a Google Image search of “Shipibo” and it leads primarily to sites that sell their pottery, along with images of them in costume and with decorated faces on tourist adventure sites. The exhibit also points out that this need to create a market for their ceramics has altered the style of their work and led them to producing more decorative objects and less utilitarian ones. So much of what we see when we look at the art of traditional cultures is created under the influence of the modern world.

The intricacy of geometric patterning on all these objects remains remarkable. After first seeing it in the Natural History Museum exhibit in 1999 I tried to paint a few faces like this at events, without good results. Partly because I had to work too quickly for that level of detail, but also because I didn’t quite understand the formula. I had a similar experience when I first tried to imitate Southeast Nuba face designs. It wasn’t until I’d read an anthropologist’s account of the design process that I could then follow that process to create my own designs in that style. The text on the Infinity of Nations website includes a description of the process the Shipibo artists follow, so I am going to give it another try.

They start by laying in the primary, heavier lines in a pattern that is always symmetrical and “infinitely expandable in any direction” (now there’s a challenge), then they add a secondary set of smaller lines and finally the very fine lines that fill in the pattern. I note in the examples that only the primary lines are completely symmetrical, the others are not.

One thing I have always retained from my initial exposure to this unique cultural art is the concept that you can sing the design on someone’s face.

Shipibo ceramic, from the book "Body Decoration".

One of the faces I paint back in 2000 after first seeing the example of these patterns in the Natural History Museum exhibit.

A recent example of a face inspired by these patterns.

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

Traditional Bodyart – Nuba, Sudan, Africa- 2: Nuba Personal Art

by Christopher Agostino, published April 2011

The Southeast Nuba people of Sudan, Africa practiced an extraordinary tradition of bodyart, available to see primarily in two books: “Nuba Personal Art” by James C. Faris (1972) and “People of Kau” by Leni Riefensthal (1977). Although the second one contains the more accomplished photography, it is Faris’ book that yields the most information to a bodypainter. Through detailed visual analysis of their bodyart and interviews with the artists over three field sessions among the Nuba from 1966-1969, Faris decodes the visual language and,  more valuably for a working body artist, explains the methodology and principles that led to such a stunning variety of designs. It is the most insightful and rigorous study of bodypainting (tribal or otherwise) that I’ve read.

The book contains sketches and charts by Faris encapsulating his analysis of Nuba bodyart patterns, with references to actual examples among the extensive photographs of painted individuals— the chart on page 47 is reproduced here. In addition to these formulas for generating bodypainting designs, he gives unique insights into otherwise impenetrable aspects of the images of the Nuba. For example, explaining that although they often use animal imagery there is no totemic connection to the animal’s powers (as there might be in Amazon or Native American bodyart). The animal imagery is chosen entirely for its value as a design element and how well it suits the forms of the body it is painted on.

Applying this analysis to one of the faces photographed by Leni Reifensthal, we can tell that this ostrich image is not chosen to give the wearer the speed of an ostrich but because the shape fits the eye socket so well. The long linear neck looks good going up the individual’s tall forehead and, by being placed precisely on the bridge of the nose, it keeps this asymmetrical design balanced. Further, Faris describes how Nuba artists manipulate the imagery to make it a pure design element by devices such as continuing the diagonal lines of the ostrich wings all the way into the hair line. He explains that if the lines continue off the face they are subjectively perceived as a design, while if they stop they are perceived more as a concrete object such as a wing. Finally, the removal of the literal interpretation of this design as “ostrich” is completed by outlining of the black design with a lighter yellow, a color which signifies that the design carries no meaning beyond its aesthetic appearance.

This is the quality that sets the Southeast Nuba apart from other traditional body arts, including the body arts of other Nuba cultures: the aesthetic value of the design and, especially, its ability to enhance the human form, transcend any meaning or ceremonial content in the design. When this art was practiced within their culture, young men in their prime would spend hours each day together, painting themselves and assisting with the painting of each other, creating unique designs daily — celebrating the human body by turning it into a work of art.

“Whatever the source of the designs used on the body, the critical factor is that the body must be emphasized, complemented, enhanced. No design or artistic treatment must detract from the presentation of the physical form itself — the chief reason, after all, for the personal art rests in the proper cultural exposure and celebration of the healthy body.” — James C. Faris

And he states that without dependence on symbolic content, “the most meaningful element is the medium on which it is … produced — the human body. This culturally proper exposure can be, perhaps as [anthropologist] Levi-Strauss has suggested, the essential expression of culturalogical man as opposed to the biological individual.” Which is to say that it is their personal art that signifies their identity as a social being.

Click here for a pdf of a tribal bodypainting guide I use in workshops, which includes my notes on one of the charts from Nuba Personal Art:  Bodypainting_Tribal_agostinoarts

Learn more about all we do at:

Nao Dance company in Bodies Alive! Bodyart patterns based on nuba designs

See the video of the Nao Dance company in Bodies Alive!:  The Nuba Bird Dance





“Picasso Nuba” from my Modern Primitive Art bodypainting series.    Combining a “nyulan” design type from Nuba bodyart with the cubist painting Seated Woman 1953 by Picasso