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Body Art Exhibition Floor Plan

Body Art: Marks of Identity - Exhibition Floor Plan








Introduction (Floor Plan, Section I)
For millennia, people throughout the world have marked their bodies with signs of civilization, individuality and social identity. People in every culture modify and decorate their bodies by painting, piercing, scarring, tattooing, reshaping, wrapping and adorning their bodies. Body art carries powerful messages about the decorated person. Colors, designs and the use of particular techniques are part of a visual language with specific cultural meanings. To decipher this language, one needs to understand the shared symbols, myths, social values and individual memories that are drawn on the body. And because body art is such a personal statement, people also use it to challenge cultural ideals and assumptions about beauty and social identity. This exhibition explores body art from different times and places. It focuses on some of the many ways that people, past and present, have marked their skin and shaped their bodies. It explores the meaning of body art, both for those who create it and for those who observe it. And it looks at some of the many ways that body art proclaims an individual's place in society, expresses status and group membership, marks a moment, signals a transition or simply follows a fashion.

Origins (Floor Plan, Section II)
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 more than 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.

Representations (Floor Plan, Section III)
From the earliest voyages of discovery to the tourism of today, travelers of all sorts-explorers and missionaries, soldiers and sailors, traders and tourists-have brought back representations of the people they meet. These depictions sometimes reveal as much about the people looking at the body art as about the people making and wearing it. Some early depictions of Europeans and Americans by non-Westerners emphasized elaborate clothing and facial hair. Alternatively, Western images of Africans, Polynesians and Native Americans focused on the absence of clothes and the presence of tattoos, body paint and patterns of scars. Body art can be a source of inspiration and admiration. Yet since body art can so clearly signal cultural differences, it can also be a way for people from one culture to exoticize and ostracize others. Representations of body art in engravings, paintings, photographs and film are powerful visual metaphors that have been used both to record cultural differences and to proclaim one group's supposed superiority over another.

Transformations (Floor Plan, Section IVA)
Body art can serve as a link with ancestors, deities or spirits and mediate the relationships between people and the supernatural world. In central Borneo tattoos are sometimes used as a protective shield against evil, as are objects with the same designs worn on or surrounding the body. Selk'nam men in Tierra del Fuego painted their bodies to transform themselves into spirits during initiation ceremonies. African figure sculptures in wood or stone often display scarification marks that identify them as specific ancestors or deities. Masks with facial markings can also be used to connect the world of the living with the world of spirits, and sometimes with the dead. Like tattoos and body paint, masks create a second skin that serves as a bridge between the ordinary world of the living and the spiritual forces that are believed to control human destiny.

Identities (Floor Plan, Section IVB)
Body art is a way of making connections and defining boundaries between people. It 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. Elaborately pictorial Japanese tattooing started among men in certain occupational groups, such as firemen and rickshaw drivers. Upper class people disapproved of tattooing and instead wore fine clothing forbidden to the lower class. In parts of Polynesia, on the other hand, geometric tattoo designs indicated high rank, and the most powerful people had the most extensive tattoos. Body art practices can change rapidly, reflecting larger shifts in society. Tattooing virtually disappeared in Polynesia, partly due to Western influence, but it is now being revived as an assertion of ethnic identity. Western body art, including everything from piercing to shoe styles, also indicates a person's social identity. In a complex and diverse society, when certain types of body art are shunned by some, they can become signs of rebellion for others. But as unfashionable body art practices become the norm, they lose their power to define group membership and instead express individual choices and life experiences.

Distinctions (Floor Plan, Section IVC)
In many cultures, body art defines and celebrates both the transition from childhood to adulthood and the distinctions between men and women. It not only gives meaning to age and gender but also honors beauty, bravery and the acquisition of knowledge. Transitions between one life stage and another are often seen as dangerous. To ensure her good fortune, an Indian bride's hands and feet are decorated with henna, while a Chokwe girl's body is covered in white kaolin for protection during initiation. Distinctions can be made permanently visible through scarification, tattooing or various forms of body shaping. People in some societies use body art to honor elders, while in others makeup and plastic surgery conceal signs of aging. Scarification may mark a woman in Africa as ready for marriage, while some Native American men were once tattooed to celebrate their strength and bravery. Bodies of both men and women, young and old, are shaped and molded, sometimes in drastic ways, to emphasize their beauty and attractiveness.

Reinvention (Floor Plan, Section V)
Worldwide travel, large-scale migrations, and increasing access to global networks of communication mean that body art today is a kaleidoscopic mix of traditional practices and new inventions. Materials, designs, and practices move from one cultural context to another. Traditional body art practices are given new meanings as they cross cultural and social boundaries. Body art allows people to reinvent themselves-to rebel, to follow fashion, or to play and experiment with new identities. Like performance artists and actors, people in everyday life use body art to cross boundaries of gender, national identity, and cultural stereotypes. Body art is also about the choices everyone makes every day. People wash, cut, color, shave, curl or straighten their hair, put on makeup and get dressed to shock or just to "fit in." People take most of their body art for granted-but if we think about going without it, then its power to communicate is clear.