In the flesh
From simple makeup to full-body tattoos and scarification, the Tropenmuseum explores how body art spans centuries and civilisations.
In 1991, a couple of German tourists hiking the Austrian Alps discovered a partially frozen body: Ötzi, a shepherd who roamed the same mountains 4,000 years ago. His well-preserved body shows the oldest documented tattoos identified to date. Sociologist David Le Breton wrote that “the history of body modifications is as old as human society. From religious rituals to tribal marks, they are found in every geographical zone on Earth.”
The Tropenmuseum’s vast collection of artefacts demonstrates this immense span, not only in time and space but also in the type of art that men have used to modify their body. “We have pre-Colombian statues which show skull deformations, for example. Back then, they thought it was very beautiful to elongate or widen your head,” says Titia Zoeter, curator of the Body Art exhibition which opened on 31 March and is a rerun of last year’s successful exhibition. We may find these modifications extreme, but Zoeter points out their similarities to today’s common plastic surgeries; after all, isn’t rhinoplasty a skull-shape alteration as well? Drawing similar comparisons through the ages, a pair of lotus shoes, which originated in 10th-century Imperial China, is exhibited alongside a pair of very high heels from a contemporary designer.
Not just a pretty face
From the examination of his 61 tattoos, scientists think that rather than decoration, Ötzi may have been searching for relief from joint pain – much like acupuncture. Anthropologists like Le Breton have also studied thousands of rituals which involve tattoos, piercings and scarification – rites of passage that can honour a coming-of-age, cement an individual’s inclusion in a tribe or religion, or even display social status. “Still today, people like to change their bodies because they want to express their belonging to a certain group,” says Zoeter. “Or, on the contrary, they want to signify their individuality, express their identity.”
The museum asked people to send in their own photos and stories, and this collection is displayed alongside the rest of the exhibition (which even includes a very controversial tattooed Barbie doll!) “Through these stories, we want to show that everyone has their own reasons for modifying their body,” says Zoeter. She adds that “one of the goals of the exhibit is to open minds.” After all, judging what is skin deep becomes a bit more difficult once you know what lies beneath.