Our skin tells our personal history-scraped knees, scars from auto accidents, sunburns, weight we've lost-all these are mapped onto us as a physical manifestation of our life story.
Then there is the next step: telling these stories deliberately. Body Ornamentation: Artistic Representations of Self, an exhibit currently on display at the San Diego Museum of Man in Balboa Park, studies the history and the variety of the ways in which people of all ages, cultures and walks of life have conscientiously modified themselves through piercing, tattooing and scarification.
The exhibit primarily consists of photographs, both from anthropological collections and photographer Tom Stahl. Stahl documents the elaborate tattoos and piercings of San Diegans, who give testimonials about what their adornments symbolize to them. They also give helpful advice: generally to be careful and conscientious when choosing a tattoo or piercing; one participant warns that only people who are into excruciating pain should tattoo their feet.
The phrase "body ornamentation" implies a much broader category than the tattooing, scarification and piercing that is the focus of the exhibition. But as curator Tori Heflin explained, Body Ornamentation focuses solely on skin ornamentation in order to narrow the focus of the exhibit. Body modification that affects the skeletal structure-such as the cranial deformation used by the Egyptians during the time of the Pharaoh Akhenaten (~1350 BC) to give the skull an elliptical shape, or the foot binding practiced in China to ensure that women had small feet and short, mincing steps-are not covered; those sorts of modifications might be subjects of a future exhibit.
The organization of the current exhibit serves to highlight the universality of skin modification across cultures and time periods, Heflin notes.
"We decided not to focus on ornamentation in particular cultures because body art is so widespread that every culture on earth practices it... and we simply did not have the space or manpower to cover every culture throughout the world," says Heflin. "The underlying reasons behind body ornamentation are as varied as the artwork itself. Body ornamentation may be associated with ritual, mark a rite of passage, enhance beauty, symbolize group identity and affiliation or be a personal statement of independence and self-determination."
Heflin points out that the nuances of ornamentation across cultures are infinite. "There is a cultural norm in that all groups of people ornament their bodies in some way," she says. In addition, there are many meanings behind different types of ornamentation. "What means one thing in one culture might mean something else in another. For example, earplugs may refer to a rite of passage in one culture, while they are purely aesthetic in another. Furthermore, the artifact itself may hold different meanings; i.e., the earplug itself might be associated with a puberty ceremony, but the size might refer to an individual's social status."
Heflin believes that an anthropology museum such as the Museum of Man is an ideal venue for an exhibit like Body Ornamentation, since the exhibit focuses not only on the simple aesthetics of the decorations, but also their cultural import. "We want to show the anthropological aspects of body ornamentation-namely, that it is a widespread practice occurring around the world, and that it has been a popular form of expression throughout human history."
Body Ornamentation: Artistic Representations of Self, is on display at the Museum of Man, 1350 El Prado in Balboa Park through March 27, 2007.