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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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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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

World Masks – Facepainting Workshop

I had a wonderful experience yesterday sharing this art of transformation with a enthusiastic group of High School students. First I did a one hour presentation of my Transformation Lecture for a very attentive audience of art students.

Then we did a facepainting training session with a select group of the students, first demonstrating the application technique and then having them work in pairs to paint each other’s faces. After that it was students painting students, as the High School artists had the chance to paint several classes of Elementary School students, from pre-K to grade 4.

We were in an inspiring setting, surrounded by the students’ artwork on exhibit for their annual art and music festival. With the opportunity for each of them to paint several faces their confidence and creativity grew over the course of the session. In between the groups of younger students, the artists would add to and refine the faces they had painted on each other, creating several examples of striking designs. One of the joys I derive when teaching facepainting to new students is how they surprise me with what they create. Working without the pre-conceptions of experienced facepainters, they will combine colors and design elements with such freedom that I wind up learning  from my students.

Using traditional tribal designs as the models for the facepainting helps move the students past concerns about their ability as painters and fosters that sense of creative freedom. Tribal faces don’t need to look like any specific thing — they are celebrations of colors, lines, dots and shapes in any way the artist chooses. I share with them my belief that more important than what you paint on someone’s face is how they feel about being painted, and encourage the artists to make a connection with the child they are painting. Before each class came in to be painted, I talked with the younger kids about how wild they would look, in designs from tribal cultures around the world, and that their High School student artist wasn’t even going to ask them what they want to be because every face is a surprise. I can safely say that a good time was had by all. The artists did great job and we all enjoyed seeing how excited the kids were to look into the mirror and see the creative works of art they had become.

To learn about the lecture program:

For more info on the tribal faces that we used as inspiration, see: