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The practice of body modification has a long history across all of the world’s continents. Taking root in spiritual and ancestral tales tracing back to what the cultures respectively consider human creation, body modification is a highly purposeful and personal art form. Body modification can be found in most cultures around the world and varies extensively in practice and media. Tattooing, ritual scarification, piercing, and the intentional and forced malformation of certain parts of the human body are all common examples of body modification. Such practices have and are regularly used to distinguish social class, familial ancestry, express one’s life craft or central purpose, tell one’s life story, or to simply increase one’s aesthetic beauty. The latter of these, however, is most often seen in modern western cultures that adopt and manipulate traditional, non-western art forms for vain and or aesthetic purposes in which their original meanings and purposes are defiled and forgotten. It is in these less commonly acknowledged cultures, routinely categorized as ‘non-western’, that body modification has its roots.
The practice of injecting ink dyes into the skin, commonly known as tattooing, has a rich history in the islands and cultures of Polynesia. The term ‘tattoo’ derives from the traditional Tahitian ‘tatau’, although the actual practice of tattooing is believed to have originated on the island of Samoa over 2,000 years ago. And although many of the Oceanic cultures are noted for their visual and practical differences, they ultimately have more in common than anything else. Most Polynesian societies have long functioned under systems of hereditary nobility where body modification artists that specialize in tattooing and ritual scarring are upheld and honored by the public, often being revered as priest-like individuals. Such artists often practice body modification as their sole profession and are believed to serve as communicators between their societies’ spiritual figures and ancestors and the members of the community.
Tattoo designs are carefully handpicked by the artists for specific individuals to enhance certain qualities or characteristics of the wearer, depict personal lineage and status, or even to serve as a spiritually protective and intimidating body armor in the case of traditional Polynesian warriors. When studying those native to the Marquesas Islands, battle tattoos were dense and dark in nature and were often applied heavily to the face. This served as both an optical illusion and a point of military intimidation to the warriors’ enemies. To the Maori people of New Zealand, the practices of tattooing and ritual scarification borrow many of their skills and visual characteristics from decorative and architectural sculpture. The most traditional Maori tattoo is a large piece that extends from the torso to the knees of initiated male members of the community. Such tattoos are called pehas and feature arrow-like patterns and spirals that accentuate the wearer’s natural musculature and define the buttocks. It is an honor and a right of passage for Maori men to sport these designs and the application process is a social ritual in which many members of the community come to witness the tattooing or attend the celebratory festivals that take place afterwards.
Like those in Oceania, body modification practices in Latin America were built upon the importance of religious ceremonies and social status. In times of Mayan civilization, those of royal lineage had their skulls purposely misshapen as newborns to signify their high social ranking in a permanent and obvious manner. It was also common to practice ceremonial bloodletting through body modification like the piercing of the tongue. Such alterations to the human body had highly spiritual purposes that assisted members of the community in becoming closer to their creators and enhanced their overall spiritual abilities and social value within their societies.
By presenting traditional Oceanic and Latin American body modifications in a gallery setting, viewers are able to gain a new level of respect and understanding for the ancient art forms in a way unique to most museums. Because of the great social importance and ritual practices surrounding tattoos, piercings, and ritual scarring, the gallery presentation of such media should also be socially focused. Photographs and illustrations would be exhibited in simple frames on the walls of a gallery that mimicked a small home. Live models sporting the discussed modifications would walk throughout the building in a normal fashion and engage in conversation with visitors to provide a unique educational and socially enlightening experience. The exhibition would utilize large amounts of natural light and would stray away from the traditional art gallery experience. The home-like, welcoming layout of the building housing the show emphasizes the ancestral, familial, and social connections stressed by the shown body modifications and encourages visitors to temporarily become one with the cultures of Oceania and Latin America without western preconceptions and expectations of practices often seen as taboo to those of other cultures.
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