Like face painting the practice of body painting dates from Prehistoric art and culture, and has occurred since among most prehistoric peoples and tribal art throughout the world. Bodies are adorned with a wide variety of substances, including plant and animal pigments, for a multiplicity of reasons. Body paint was used to celebrate ceremonial occasions (eg. puberty, marriage), and to identify key individuals (eg, chiefs, witch-doctors and spiritualists) and social castes (India). In addition, war-paint was used by American Indians to signify a state of hostility – see American Indian art for more about the culture of the Plains Indians. Body paints were also protective: for instance, Aboriginal tribes used paint to protect against the glare of the sun. Another example of protective body painting was the use of woad (a blue dye from the plant Isatis Tinctoria) by pagan Scottish Celtic tribes during the Imperial Roman era. The blue pigment supposedly protected against the cold, although this has not been proved.
Today, traditional body painting survives in primitive and indigenous tribal cultures throughout Africa, Asia and South America, and in parts of Australia and some Pacific Islands (Oceanic art), although whether it should be classified as a type of art, a folk craft, or simply a cultural practice, remains unclear.
Types of Body Paint
The type of colour pigments and dyes used, varied from region to region. Clay body paints (ochre) were among the most common types, as was henna – a reddish brown pigment from the tropical shrub Lawsonia Inermis.
In South America, indigenous tribes used charcoal, another black pigment called huito, or annatto – an orange dye from fruit seeds taken from the tree Bixa Orellana – to decorate their faces and bodies.
For more about the impact of tribal art on the West, see: Primitivism.
Modern Body Painting
The search for new visual art forms during the twentieth century has led to a mini-revival of body decoration in Western society over the past fifty years. Unfortunately, this modern form of body painting includes many sensationalist and exhibitionist forms. The use of body paint in the visual arts is essentially limited to forms of avant-garde art, during which pigments are applied to a model who then rolls onto a surface (typically paper, textile or board) thus transferring an imprint.
Body Art Festivals include the World Bodypainting Festival (Seeboden, Austria), and the American Body Arts Festival (NY), to name but two. A Fine Arts Gallery devoted exclusively to Body Art is located in New Orleans.