This page includes information that may not reflect the current views and values of the Penn Museum.

University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
Body Painting
piercing, tattooing, painting in the galleries of the
Penn Museum.

woman with face painting Papua, New Guinea, 1982
Decorated for an annual festival.

When most people think of body painting, the image that comes to mind is more likely to be that of a "wild" person such as the New Guinea woman pictured at left as opposed to that of "wild" American men shown at right. Yet body painting is worldwide, the most ancient and direct method of corporeal decoration. We all paint our bodies for reasons of identification, ritual, or beauty. For the New Guinea woman, body painting is a means of conveying social messages about her identity with a group. In much the same way, the designs on the faces and chests of this year's World Cup fans are clear signals about their loyalty to Team USA.

US sports fans
Paris, 1998
Decorated for the yearly World Cup Games, their body painting has a ritual component and serves as a form of identification.

Americans often paint each others' faces at community gatherings. Visit a block-party or fair in the United States and you're sure to see at least one person painting children's faces.

face painting

face painting

face painting at a block party, suburban Philadelphia, 1998

Tlingit face stamps
Tlingit face stamps,

Alaska, 1905

The Tlingit of southeast Alaska used face painting at gatherings.These face stamps (pictured left), carved with the emblems of clans, were dipped into paint and pressed onto the cheeks of women before going to a potlatch, a type of annual community feast. At the feast, it was easy to identify the clan a woman belonged to by looking at her face.

The most common form of body painting in America is also the easiest to overlook: cosmetics. A daily ritual for most women and the envy of small girls, wearing cosmetics is undoubtedly the most prevalent type of body painting in the world today. It's a multi-billion dollar industry -- with an increasing male market as well. On the surface, makeup is used to mask or disguise unsightly pimples, scars, or what seem to be unflattering natural features. But on a deeper level, there are other reasons for using makeup. For example, some would argue that the current makeup mania in American society is a byproduct of the media, and that American men and women, constantly presented with attractive images of models, movie stars, and musicians, inevitably want to imitate the way they look.
contemporary makeup

Buddha with dot on forehead. Museum Object Number: C405A, China, A.D. 1279-1368

Buddha with dot on forehead
For centuries, people all over the world have used makeup to enhance their natural features. In India, in addition to makeup for the eyes and lips, a dot on the forehead of women is included in the daily beauty routine.

Egyptian funerary stela, showing a woman taking her makeup box with her to the afterlife
Funerary stela, showing a woman taking her mirror and makeup box with her to the afterlife,
Egypt, ca. 2130-2000 B.C.

Makeup was an important facet in the daily lives of ancient Egyptian men and women. Their cosmetics were made from various minerals and included henna, ochre, and kohl. It could be applied to the living as well as to mummies. The detail (left) from a funeral stele displayed in the Museum's Egyptian gallery shows a seated woman, traveling to the Afterlife and taking her mirror and makeup box (beneath her chair) with her on the journey. For ancient Egyptians, one's image was connected to the idea of an afterlife.

Cosmetic palette and spoons, Iron IIB, 800-701 B.C., Iron IIC, 701-586 B.C.

Cosmetic palette and spoons,
800-701 B.C.,
701-586 B.C.

Canaanite men and women both wore makeup. The cosmetic palette and cosmetic spoons (above) are from the Museum's Canaan and Ancient Israel gallery.

Cosmetics also served a practical purpose in Egypt and India. Kohl was worn as eyeliner, and helped to cut the glare from the sun. Today, atheletes put black (and white) smudges under their eyes for the same purpose.

Patrick Rafter w/sunblock

Patrick Rafter blocking the sun's glare,
U.S. Open, 1998

The most recent innovation in modern cosmetics is micro pigment implantation, which is semi-permanent makeup applied by a process similar to tattooing. Unlike a tattoo, however, the ink will fade in about five years. The process was originally created to cover up unsightly birthmarks such as the dark-red, port-wine marks that some people have. Today it is being used to add convenience to everyday life. A woman can have her entire face made up to save the time of applying makeup each day. For example, she can have eyeliner, lipstick, and blush applied and it will never wash off.

Demi goes mehndi!
Demi does mehndi,
Los Angeles, 1998

Staining the nails, skin and hair with henna is the favorite way of enhancing beauty among women in the Middle East and is becoming increasingly popular in the United States. Mehndi, commonly referred to as henna, is the powder form. Henna is the dye that comes from mixing the powder with catechu, an astringent substance, obtained from various trees and shrubs. The red powder form of henna can be obtained by crushing the berries from a certain plant. Henna is a popular way to make semi-permanent decorative designs on the skin. There are two types of henna: black and red.

Black henna (saumer) is reserved for the soles of the feet and hands while red henna is used for the tips of the fingers and toes. Red henna involves the additional use of a paste made from powdered lime, nura, and crystal amoniac, shanadah. This makes an orange paste that turns black as it dries, leaving a design on the skin that remains for approximately 20-30 days. Red and black henna can often be purchased at international grocery stores.

In India, henna art was often reserved for special occasions such as weddings. The application of henna can take up to 6 hours. After all the ingredients are mixed and the designs are applied, the painted areas shouldn't be disturbed for 6 hours or more, depending upon the desired richness of color and lifespan of the design. This process, the same in India and in the United States, is lengthy, but is nevertheless seen more frequently in everyday activities.

mehndi design


henna design on navel
Henna design
on navel,
NYC, 1998

Feet and hands decorated for typical Indian wedding
Feet and hands decorated for wedding,
India, 1998

Body piercing, tattooing, painting in the galleries of the
Penn Museum.

© Penn Museum 2018 Sitemap | Contact | Copyright | Disclaimer | Privacy |