Story Summary:

 From when we humans first became aware, we began to paint our skin with colors and symbols of who we are. Were we telling the world “look at my skin to see who I am”, or saying that since appearances can change, then true identity must lie deeper within us?

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: The-Story-on-Our-Skin

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think that people have painted themselves since the beginning of human culture?
  2. Do people have different reasons for why they paint or mask themselves in different cultures?
  3. Is wearing makeup the same as painting a face? How do people paint themselves today?

Resources:

  • Transformations! The Story Behind the Painted Faces by Christopher Agostino
  • How Art Made the World: A Journey to the Origins of Human Creativity by Nigel Spivey
  • Tribes by Art Wolfe
  • Body Decorations: A World Survey of Body Art by Karl Gröning

Themes:

  • Identity

Full Transcript:

As we humans first became self-aware, we began to paint our skin. Aware of who we are. Aware of our place in the world. Why did we paint ourselves? The answers may be lost in the black charcoals and the white ash of our first fires. In the ochre colored earths where we first lived, these are materials that are still used as makeups. Was it in colors such as these that we first saw our skin as a vehicle of identity?

The color, red, signifies power and vitality, embodies our traditions around the world. From the faces of the heroes of the Chinese, the Japanese theater to the red ring that surrounds the face of the Masai warrior. How long has this been true?

When we first marked our skin, was it merely as a decoration or were they marks of identity? Were they meant to be read like the swirls of Maori tattoo or the iconic symbol worn like a name badge by the Plains Indian, Bull Buffalo? Were we saying, “Look at my skin to know who I am!”

In celebrations of who we are, we still paint ourselves today. From modern birthday parties to village festivals in the Omo River Valley of Ethiopia. The young men of the southeast Nuba would paint their full bodies every day in original designs, celebrating the beauty of the human form. For we are so beautiful, we deserve to be art. From ancient rituals and the theater born of them, to modern incarnations like Halloween and Hollywood movies, the makeup artist brings our dreams, our gods to life, and our nightmares, too, giving form to our aspirations, raising us beyond our identities into the supernatural.

As a modern face painter, I’ve learned that what I paint on someone’s face is not as important as how the painting makes them feel as people see them anew, transformed. Our skin is the edge of who we are, where we touch the world. When we mark our skin, we are changing the way the world sees us, to take control of our identity.

But there’s a duality of understanding in this transformation. For if we can change our identity by changing our appearance, then we should come to understand that all appearance is transitory, beautiful. Identity lies deeper. It’s a fundamental function of masks and body art in world cultures. To prove that forms are transitory, to prove that forms can change, then to understand the true nature of the world, we have to look deeper, to the spirit behind the mask.

No matter how many faces I’ve painted and what I’ve painted on them, one element always remains the same. The eyes. The human eyes that look back at me through the painted mask. And I’ve come to see that everyone’s eyes look the same, the way, I imagine, they’ve always looked since the very beginning when we first became aware.