Tap Into an Alternate Reality: 22 Painted Faces That Tell Stories

Tap Into an Alternate Reality: 22 Painted Faces That Tell Stories

Teake Zuidema

Face-painting is a tradition that goes all the way back to the origin of humans. In Africa, archaeologists discovered pigments used for body painting in dwellings more than 200,000 years old. They found painted skeletons and cave drawings that show ancient hunters with lines and points painted on their faces. In modern times, we can see the same tradition when we go to a powwow, a football game, a rock concert or even a kid’s party.

People don’t paint their faces to participate in everyday life. On the contrary, the painting of colors and patterns on one’s body indicate a desire to temporarily move into the different time and space of a ritual. The patterns and colors applied to the face give a person a magical power to participate in the ‘alternate reality’ of a baptism, a wedding celebration, a hunt, a war, a game, a powwow, a pilgrimage or different kinds of religious or spiritual events. Paints are often used in combination with other magical tools: clothing, dancing, food, singing, drumming, music and sometimes the use of hallucinogens.

The differences with tattoos are obvious. Tattoos are permanent and so are statements about the permanent identity of a person. Paints, however, are temporary and are tools to achieve a temporary transformation or a temporary change of identity. For the Zuni, and in many other cultures, the paints are sacred and nobody is allowed to touch a painted dancer until he has washed his body. This demonstrates a strong belief in the magical powers of the paint.

Native American hunters often decorated themselves with patterns that made them look like the animal they were hunting. Some hunters painted their bodies with the colors of the beaver in order to acquire the knowledge and skills of this animal to protect them during the hunt. In war, symbols painted of faces, often indicated the status of a warrior or demonstrated his bravery. A hand painted over a Lakota face, could indicate that the warrior had shown his courage in combat by striking an enemy with his bare hand.

Each culture has its own symbols and colors, just like football teams have their own colors and symbols. Many cultures have systems of symbols and colors that are as complex as the spoken language. Meanings vary from culture to culture. For the Cherokee black was the color of death, and white the color of happiness. For many other Native American tribes, however, black was a positive force. Red, probably the most widely applied color, often gives the user power and is the color of combat and triumph in war.

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