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Where Does Body Painting in Art Stand?

  • body painting art
  • body painting art
June 11, 2016

Body painting art has an extremely rich history. For example, face painting (a part of body painting art) has its origins in prehistoric art and culture. In ancient ages, tribes and their members used to paint the body with clay and other natural pigments and this practice is still alive. It’s an inseparable part of tribalism culture. Many indigenous groups use body painting as a form of expressing their own culture. However, in this article, the topic is the position of body painting in relation with contemporary art. Is it a legitimate movement within contemporary art, or is it a lowbrow art? The problem with body painting art is that it’s usually connected with tattoo art, which cannot be considered as contemporary art. On the other hand, there are a number of contemporary art practices using body painting as a legitimate medium. So, what is the position of body painting art within the world of contemporary art?

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Liu Bolin near the Ground Zero (courtesy of telegraph.co.uk)

What is Body Painting Art ?

Body painting art is a form of body art. Indeed, body painting art is usually associated with tattoo art. However, tattoo art and bodypainting are not synonyms. There are some substantial differences that should be mentioned. First of all, body painting art is temporary and it lasts only for several hours (unlike tattoos). Secondly, there are many examples of bodypainting that are considered to be a part of fine art. In the second half of the 20th Century, many artists searched for new visual forms that eventually led to the revival of the ancient practice of bodypainting. Therefore, despite the fact that body painting art has been usually related to the artistic practices of tribal cultures and ancient art forms, a separate space where a body was perceived as a canvas was created, with a number of significant artists who began to create artworks on the human body. Of course, this practice should be perceived independently of body art, where body serves as a medium per se – particularly in performance art.

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Hexactinellidé, Deepsea Sponge. Make up by Nadja Hluchovsky, Vienna, Austria (courtesy of theguardian.com)

Is Bodypainting Lowbrow?

Many art critics dispute bodypainting as a legitimate contemporary art method. Since it is “temporary artwork”, what is the value of bodypainting at all? What is the difference between lowbrow practices and body art painting? Is bodypainting only about temporary intervention that could be labeled as performance or conceptual art intervention? In general, the majority of art critics believe bodypainting is lowbrow, and therefore cannot be considered as an art movement. These critics also argue that body painting art is conducted by non-professional artists, and that it should be understood as tattoo art, cartoon art or nudity art. However, the practice of bodypainting is more complex and it has quite rich history; therefore, it cannot be simply dismissed as an illegitimate contemporary art practice.

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Emma Hack – Artwork (courtesy of crafthubs.com)

Body Painting Art as Contemporary Art Practice

Those art critics who dismiss body painting art as a contemporary art form are faced with a number of amazing bodypainting practices that are quite popular among art lovers. For example, the so-called Mehndi or henna is contemporary practice largely used in India, where this practice of artistic intervention transcends the simple tattoo practice. In addition, in the last couple of years, there have been a number of contemporary artists who used their own body as canvas, or use other human bodies as canvases. Two contemporary artists are particularly focused on bodypainting: Chinese artist Liu Bolin and Australian Emma Hack. As part of his own political and socially engaged art, Liu Bolin uses his own body in the practice of painting himself into various settings in Beijing, thus emotionally responding to the demolition of many areas of Chinese capital city. On the other hand, Emma Hack paints women into wallpaper, as she turns their naked bodies into exquisite murals. The practice of these two artists poses a serious challenge to the status of bodypainting within contemporary art. But, it’s important to say that the practice of these two artists is more often described as camouflaging human body.

Is this bodypainting contemporary art or not?

Where and How to Position Body Painting Art?

It’s very difficult to answer the question how to position body painting art. On one hand, there are critics and art experts who are very cautious, and they usually dismiss body painting art as a contemporary art movement. They argue that body skin simply cannot be a substitute for canvas. In addition, they link bodypainting with tattoo practices, which, in their opinion, cannot be considered art at all. On the other hand, there are critics and experts comparing body painting art to performance art. Many famous artists whose practice can be described as body painting art (for example, Bolin and Hack) are selling their works at auctions, at quite high prices too. Therefore, they are contemporary artists. Also, there are many body painting festivals that bring together art lovers, but also collectors. Finally, it only depends on quality of artworks in the end. If bodypainting practice is related to nail art, or non-professional body drawing, then it cannot be considered as contemporary art. It’s only about the quality, aesthetics and conceptuality – when a bodypainting practice respects these “established norms”, there is no need to dismiss it as a significant part of contemporary art.

Featured Images: One of the leading bodypainting art festivals takes place in Austria (courtesy theguardian.com); The Practice of Mehndi. All Images used for illustrative purposes only.