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We in temperate countries say of a poor man that he cannot afford to clothe himself; the Orinoco people say, "The man is so wretched that he cannot even paint half his body."
(From the diaries of Alexander von Humboldt, 19th-century scholar and explorer)


The impulse to communicate and to create art is one of the defining characteristics of human nature. As the only living creatures who are aware of their own selves, human beings use their body as a medium for artistic expression, endowing the skin - the layer that separates the self from the outside world - with special significance. Through the use of a precise iconography, body becomes message, its decorations symbolizing a wide range of meanings; further adorned with jewelry and costume, it becomes a form of living semantics.

Many peoples in Africa and the Americas use their body and skin as a medium for their creative and artistic talents, cutting into its surface like wood carvers or sculptors. The various forms of cosmetic alterations - from body painting, through tattooing and scarification, to dental filing and cranial shaping - thus reflect the use of the body as the primary canvas, elevating it into a living work of art (see illustration no. 1).

1. Maternity figure
Baule people, Ivory Coast
Late 19th - early 20th century
Wood, pigment; h 40 cm
Gift of Anna Rogin, New York,
to American Friends of the Israel Museum
Female nursing child, with painted face,
tattooed breasts, and scarification
Jalisco, West Mexico
250 BCE - 250 CE
Clay and pigment; h 29.5 cm
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arnold Maremont, Chicago,
to American Friends of the Israel Museum

In the cultures of Africa and the Americas, sacred art is generally concerned with beauty as a symbol of the good. This notion of the intimate connection between the concepts of beauty and the good is, of course, familiar in the West too, where it is deeply entrenched in early thought and art. Many languages in the areas represented in the exhibition use the same word to refer to both concepts.

Body art expresses both the sacred and the profane. Skin decoration can convey a person's religious faith, but it can also communicate a person's status in society, displaying accomplishments and encoding memories, desires, and life histories. It is a visual language incorporating shared symbols, myths, and social values (ills. 2, 3). Through body decoration, concepts of social order and disorder are depicted, and specific power and class structures are upheld.

2. Idealized head of high-ranking figure
Yoruba people, Ife-Ife kingdom, Nigeria
Ca. 12th - 15th century
Clay, paint; h 15.3 cm
Purchased through the gift of Pierre Amrouche, Paris,
and Lance Entwistle and Co., London, in honor of Martin Wright,
with support from Renee and Chaim Gross; Curtis Katz and family;
the Nash Family Foundation, Inc.;
the Faith-dorian and Martin Wright Family; and an anonymous donor,
to American Friends of the Israel Museum
3. Idealized portrait of Maize God with cranial shaping
and dental filing
Maya, Chiapas, Mexico
600-900 CE
Stone, stucco, pigment; h 46 cm
Gift of Arne and Milly Glimcher, New York,
to American Friends of the Israel Museum,
in memory of Stephen Klein
4. Favorite spouse figure ( lu me)
Dan people, Ivory Coast
Late 19th - early 20th century
Wood; h 40 cm
Gift of Faith-dorian and Martin Wright, New York,
to American Friends of the Israel Museum,
in memory of Abraham Janoff

Ceremonial patterns help people make the transition between secular, everyday life and the spiritual realm. Besides being decorative, body art plays an important role in carrying out this transition, acting as a mediator between human beings and the supernatural world, and serving as a link with ancestor deities or spirits. Tattoos, body painting, and scars (ill. 4) are also believed to have protective functions, helping to repel evil and ensure fertility and good fortune. Thus, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Luluwa women decorate their navel with concentric scars, believed to symbolize birth, growth, and life. Body art plays an important role in a wide range of ceremonies dealing with rites of passage, healing, war, and agriculture.

The beautiful body is associated with the healthy body. Scarfication may indicate illnesses overcome, extraordinary personal physical achievements, or exemplary moral and physical attributes. It can indicate resilience, but also restraint and sophistication. Certain scars highlight a healthy or flawless skin, and, together with other forms of body modfication and decoration, may reveal a person's inner quality and state of mind. Scarification also relates beauty to sanctity: In some societies in the Americas, certain scars are considered beautiful because they are a result of self-sacrifice (in the form of bloodletting) performed as an offering to the gods.

5. Female ritual performer with feathered headdress,
labret, and multiple earrings
Jama Coaque, Ecuador
350 BCE - 400 CE
Clay and pigment; h 33 cm
Gift of Rachel Adler and Anna Rogin, New York,
to American Friends of the Israel Museum
Fertility doll ( akuaba)
Asante people, Ghana
Late 19th - early 20th century
Wood; h 32.5 cm
Gift of Dr. Israel and Michaella Samuelly, Brooklyn,
to American Friends of the Israel Museum

Painful decorations are also seen as a way of improving physical appearance, and such interventions as head modeling (ill. 5), scarfication (ill.6), and nose, ear, and lip piercing are done for the sake of elegance and beauty and in order to enhance the person's sensual and erotic appeal. Considered divine, these esthetic changes are practiced by both males and females, sometimes as early as at the moment of birth.



6. Ideal female figure ( sika blawa)
Baule-Atutu people, Ghana
Late 19th - early 20th century
Wood, gold leaf; h 22.5 cm
The Arthur and Madeleine Chalette Lejwa Collection,
bequeathed by Madeleine Chalette Lejwa to American Friends of the Israel Museum

Whereas hairstyles (ill. 7), external ornaments, and costumes can be removed or replaced at will, and body painting merely modifies the surface of the body, scarification and tattooing penetrate - and thus forever change - the skin; similarly, cranial shaping and dental filing (ill. 8, right) permanently change a person's head and teeth. Ideals of beauty vary across different cultures; what is described in the West by such pejorative terms as "deformation" and "mutilation" (terms associated with damage and injury), rather than the more neutral "shaping", "modification", or "filing", represent for the cultures of Africa and the Americas signs of status, strength, and beauty.
7. Bundu ( Sande) society helmet mask
Mende people, Sierra Leone
Early 20th century
Wood, black patina; h 40.2 cm
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Alexander Honig, Riverdale, New York,
to American Friends of the Israel Museum
Female head with elaborate hairdo and scarification
Classic Veracruz, Mexico
300-600 CE
Clay and pigment; h 28 cm
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arnold Maremont, Chicago,
to American Friends of the Israel Museum

These practices are viewed as an expression of human civilization and sophistication, distinguishing humanity from unformed nature or the animal world. Cosmetic embellishment is perceived as a means to dignify a person's body; as people in these regions might say, a person's soul would not feel at home in a body that is not artistically complete. Thus, in Africa as in the Americas, corporal metamorphosis has to do with drawing the human body out of its original biological state and elevating it to the realm of the spiritual.

8. Female ritual performer in rich garment
and tall headgear
Nopiloa, Classic Veracruz, Mexico
600-900 CE
Clay and pigment; h 25.8 cm
Gift of Arne and Milly Glimcher, New York,
to American Friends of the Israel Museum
Female ritual performer in rich garment
and animal mask
Nopiloa, Classic Veracruz, Mexico
600-900 CE
Clay and white slip; h 38 cm
Gift of Seth and Anne Merrin, New York,
to American Friends of the Israel Museum
Evidence of the antiquity and prevalence of cosmetic alterations of the face and body can be found in artworks like functional vessels, figures and figurines, and masks, as well as in ornaments such as ear spools, nose rings, labrets, and lip plugs. Spanning a period from 1300 BCE to the twentieth century, the artworks displayed in the exhibition belong to cultures from the regions of Western Sudan, the Guinea coast, Nigeria, Central and East Africa, Mexico and Central America, and the Andes and Amazons. Some of the traditions they reveal are still prevalent today. Beyond our own notions and attitudes, they allow us a glimpse into other - sometimes radically different - concepts of beauty.
9. False head for mortuary bundle
Nazca, Peru
300-600 CE
Cotton, gold, feathers, human hair, pigment; h 32 cm
Gift of The Merrin Gallery, Inc., New York,
to American Friends of the Israel Museum
Helmet mask
Kuba people / Kete people, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Early 20th century
Wood, raffia, pigment; h 45 cm
Gift of Gaston de Havenon, New York,
to American Friends of the Israel Museum
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