Body Art and Ornamentation

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Body Art and Ornamentation in Different Cultures

Introduction to Cultural Anthropology ANT101

July 28, 2013

There is no culture in which people do not, or did not paint, pierce, tattoo, reshape, or simply adorn their bodies (Schildkrout, 2001). Throughout history, body art and ornamentation has become a worldwide phenomenon and has played a key role in our lives, yet there is a social stigma which we cannot seem to rid ourselves of. It is most commonly misunderstood and misinterpreted which can be attributed to the fact that the symbolism and significance of the body art and/or ornamentation doesn’t always translate the same among the cultures. Although Western culture views body art and ornamentation as being associated with mischief and rebellion, Japanese and African cultures use it as a way of expressing spirituality as well as cultural expression. The existence of body art and ornamentation can be traced all the way back thirty thousand years or more back to when cavemen drew pictures on the cave walls. According to Kuhn & Stiner (n.d.), the alteration and enhancement of one’s body originated from the Kapthurin formation in Kenya. Anthropologists even believe that body art and ornamentation was present during the Middle Pleistocene in both Eurasia and Africa.

Expression and art are two factors that play a fundamental part in African culture. According to Clarke (2006), many African societies symbolically view body art and ornamentation as a special role in guiding one’s destiny and success, mediating between world of the living as well as the spiritual world, expressing community ideals, defining power and leadership, protecting and healing, and celebrating or commemorating the cycles of life, human and agricultural.

African culture uses a variety of ways to display their body art and ornamentation depending on which society they live in. These ways include: incorporating shells, teeth, or claws into their clothing or jewelry, wearing colored body paint, exaggerating human features (i.e. elongation of the neck), gauging piercings in the ears and/or lip, scarification, and tattooing. Looking from another culture’s perspective, the various forms of African body art and ornamentation are seen as being weird, out of the ordinary, and we don’t understand the importance they hold within these African cultures. On the other hand, there are other cultures such as the Japanese, who instead of outwardly portraying their body art and ornamentation will instead conceal it so it won’t be visible at all.

The first signs of body art and ornamentation which appear in the Japanese culture were first noted as originating all the way back to AD 297 (Rapp, 2010). Back then, tattoos would signify which occupational group certain men belonged to and men, both young and old, would get tattoos all over their bodies including their faces. Men would even go as far as getting full body tattoos which could be found on laborers, firemen, and gangsters (Hopkins-Tanne, 2000). The Chinese considered all Japanese tattoos an act of barbarism and was perceived as being extremely negative. The body art and ornamentation that exists and has existed within the Japanese culture spreads beyond just tattooing and there are a few other methods that they used. First, many married Japanese women or courtesan in the 10th through 19th centuries would apply a paste to their teeth which would blacken them (Schildkrout, 2001). This was considered as being beautiful as well as sexually appealing to where as we would view that as abnormal and ugly. Secondly, they would bind the women’s feet in order to make them smaller and the process was extremely excruciating, but again, it was considered as being beautiful. The pain that was felt and the blood that was shed served as an offering to the gods, ancestors, and spirits (2001). On the other end of the spectrum, culture within the United States has a...
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