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My body, my art

By Paul Taçon - posted Wednesday, 5 April 2006

Concealment - the obscuring of physical features - is a key feature of many forms of body art, not just that to do with genitals. It is obvious in certain forms of clothing, such as a Catholic nun’s habit, Muslim dress, and bathing costumes from Victorian England.

Masks are a striking form of body art that conceal the face and also transform personal identity. Often they are combined with costume to portray the identity of an ancestor, a mythological being, or a hero.

The new identity is acted out in ritual performance, with many people believing the beings represented are actually present. The actors themselves take on the power of the beings they portray, and in the process can reach a higher state of awareness, being, self-expression, and self-confidence.


Masks are a form of body art which act out transformation, replacing one identity with another and expressing categorical change. They occur in connection with rites of passage and curative ceremonies such as exorcisms, and are frequently associated with funerary rites and death. But they also can be about life, renewed life, and rebirth.

Sometimes we apply a cosmetic or mud face-mask to renew and rejuvenate our face. In the process, we attempt to accentuate and bring our facial features alive to attract sexual partners. Or we don a mask along with a new persona for a fancy dress ball, a Halloween dance, a Mardi Gras performance, or during war - to play, act, or pass on to another state of being.

Wigs, hair, hats and head dresses are also meant to transform and bring attention to our faces and heads. They signal status, hierarchy, initiation, sexual orientation, competence and competition.

Compare the primarily male hats and head dresses worn by members of the Catholic Church - from the Pope to cardinals, bishops and priests - to the female headgear displayed annually at that great Australian festival, the Melbourne Cup. Then think of wigs worn by judges, barristers, lawyers, prostitutes, drag queens and harlots. Think of hippy hair, Rasta hair, pink hair, Mohawks, lime-green hair, and red and blue hair.

Australian Aboriginal males in Arnhem Land and the Kimberley wore enormous and elaborate head dresses over 10,000 years ago, if rock painting depictions are an indication. Early explorers and anthropologists with stereotypical pith helmets would have loved to have encountered them in the flesh.

Bowler hats, Aussie akubras, baseball caps worn backwards, sombreros, yarmulkes, Sunday hats, scarves, Carmen Miranda’s head of fruit, widow’s caps, crowns, tiaras, military hats and helmets, bridal veils, towering Pacific island head dresses, and Indian turbans are just a few of the many forms of head adornment expressing cultural affiliation, status, religious belief, state of being, and personal identity. They draw attention directly to or above the face, forcing the viewer to make contact and signal the nature of interaction that should take place.


A concern for personal identity, and portraying such through body art, begins at an early age. As infants begin to explore their new world with hands and eyes, they soon learn to recognise parents, siblings and friends. They learn the identities of other people partly through the ways these people adorn themselves, and are taught to follow similar practices.

If they are girls in southern Europe, they might have their ears pierced at a very early age; if they are boys in Israel or the USA, they might have their penises circumcised. They are dressed, painted and otherwise adorned.

In some parts of the world they might receive their first tattoo before the age of one. Today, in many countries, their faces are painted for ceremony, fun and profit. Eventually they might acquire lip plugs, neck bands, ear spools, nose rings, anklets, navel jewellery, or bones through the nose.

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Article edited by Allan Sharp.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This is the second part of a two-part article. The first part was published in On Line Opinion. The full article is a modified version of an essay first published in 2000 in the Australian Museum exhibition catalogue Body Art (Outback Print, Mosman). The Australian Museum retains copyright but has kindly consented to the republication in this format. See more on body art and the exhibition. Read part one here.

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About the Author

Professor Taçon joined the School of Arts in February 2005. He was previously based at the Australian Museum, Sydney, for 14 years from January 1991. He was Principal Research Scientist in Anthropology from mid-1998 to early 2005 and from 1995 to 2003 he was Head of the Australian Museum’s People and Place Research Centre. He is an anthropologist, archaeologist and photographer who specialised in collaborative research involving creative artists, scientists, Indigenous peoples and other members of the broader community.

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On Line Opinion - A statement of identity

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