A History of Human Art and Body Painting

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If the impulse to create art is a defining sign of humanity, the body may well have been the first canvas. Alongside paintings on cave walls visited by early people over 30,000 years ago, we find handprints, ochre deposits, and ornaments. And because the dead were often buried with valuable possessions and provisions for the afterlife, ancient burials reveal that people have been tattooing, piercing, painting, and shaping their bodies for millennia.

All of the major forms of body art known today appear in the ancient world, and there is no evidence indicating a single place of origin for particular techniques. Like people today, ancient peoples used body art to express identification with certain people and distinction from others. Through body art, members of a group could define the ideal person and highlight differences between individuals and groups. In the past, as today, body art may have been a way of communicating ideas about the afterlife and about the place of the individual in the universe.

A variety of objects demonstrate the use of body art in ancient times including an Egyptian fish-shaped make-up palette from 3650 BC to 3300 BC; a painted Greek vase from the fifth century BC depicting tattooed Thracian women; a ceramic spout bottle depicting the pierced face of a Moche warrior of Peru from AD 100-700; and ceramics of painted Nayarit women from 300 BC to 300 AD.

As people from one culture encounter people from another, the diversity of body art can be a source of inspiration, admiration, and imitation. Yet since body art can so clearly signal cultural differences, it can also be a way for people from one culture to ostracize others.

Body art links the individual to a social group as an insider, by asserting a shared body art language. Or it distinguishes outsiders, by proclaiming a separate identity. This concept is explored in Identities, which includes exhibits on tattooing in Japan, New Zealand, the Marquesan Islands, and the...
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