Christo Geoghegan is a documentary photographer and writer who has made time to tell Sang Bleu about his time in the remote Northeast India and the fascinating culture of body modification practiced in the particular areas that he visited.
The art of tattooing and body modification has always been an intrinsic part of tribal culture. Cultural identity and heritage is the beating heart of any tribe and as such body art has been used as an external expression of internal values. It became a form of visual ID to indicate which tribe you were from and where your loyalties lied. And in the remote northeastern states of India, whose populations are predominantly tribal, this was important.
Northeast India is a collection of seven states connected to mainland India by a 21km wide stretch of land known as the Siliguri corridor. Though administratively Indian, much of the culture and people share almost no similarities with their Indian neighbours and as such the ‘Seven Sisters States’ are disparate siblings of their mainland brothers. Northeast Indian culture is far more influenced by the neighbouring countries of Myanmar, Tibet and to a lesser extent, Bangladesh. And it’s because of this isolation away from mainland governance and the inexorable modernisation that goes with it, that the region has remained one of the last bastions of tribal culture.
Back in 2009, I was incredibly fortunate to obtain the necessary permits required to enter the geographically secluded states of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland in order to meet and photograph two of its most famous tribal inhabitants: the Konyak Headhunters of Mon and the Apatani women of Ziro Valley. Both of these tribes are famous for their distinctive tattoos and body modifications, but the significance and origins of each are entirely different.
The Konyaks are a hill tribe separated across three different geographical locations. Some reside in the southernmost region of Arunachal Pradesh, some live in the hills of neighbouring Myanmar, and some, like the ones I spent time with, live in the state of Nagaland. The Konyaks have a rich history of being fierce and highly feared warriors and the tattoos that were adopted by the tribe were created to show this. The Konyaks became notorious across the region as headhunters, who believed that when they collected the skull of an enemy they could in turn harness the life force and soul that once dwelled inside of its original ‘owner’. Successful and prolific headhunters were then given the honour of being able to wear the mark, having their faces and chest covered in tattoos. The Konyak women however, would receive decorative tattoo designs (primarily on their legs) to signify various advancements in life. These tattooing practices would continue up until the late 1960s when Nagaland began to experience a cultural shift that would affect Konyak tattooing forever: Christianisation.
From the beginning of the 1940s Christian missionaries from America, Wales and New Zealand set out to the remote northeastern states to spread the gospel and attempt to convert non-believers. However, some of these envoys were of the opinion that many of the activities and beliefs that these tribes held were primitive or barbaric and preached to the tribesmen with a heavy hand. And as such, as Christianity began to spread across the region, many tribes began to lose sight of some of the ancestral heritage and original animistic beliefs that were once at the forefront of their very being.
This isn’t to say that Christianity did not bring some aspects of social prosperity to the region, in fact it was one of the main reasons that practices such as the violent art of headhunting were outlawed. But what is undeniable is that this shift in thinking began to have an impact on many forms of tribal art and expression, particularly tattooing culture. With the end of headhunting and a conversion to Christianity widespread, the Konyaks ceased all tattooing activities and with the number of tattooed Konyaks dwindling as their ages increase, the marks of the headhunter look set to be erased forever.
The women of the Apatani tribe however, had very different reasons for body art and modification. Believed to be the most beautiful in the region, the Apatani women were prone to being kidnapped and raped by the surrounding Nishi tribesmen. To stop this from occurring and protect the tribeswomen, the Apatanis agreed to begin a practice known as ‘imposed ugliness’. By ‘destroying’ the beauty that was so desired by these invading tribesmen, it was believed that they would no longer be at risk from attack. This practice was forced upon all Apatani women when they reached a certain age and began with facial tattooing: one single vertical line from the forehead to base of the nose and then five vertical lines beneath the lip to the base of the chin. Small incisions were then made into the sides of each nostril, and a plug, known locally as Yapping Hullo, were inserted into them. Over time, these plugs were replaced with larger ones in order to stretch the original incision until it was at an acceptable size.
However, it wasn’t Christianity that ended this bizarre form of rape prevention, but peace with the Nishi in the 1960s. Many Apatani women, distraught from having the practice carried out on them, chose to have elective plastic surgery to remove their imposed ugliness. But many embraced their modifications and a popular belief is held amongst many in the tribe that the larger the Yaping Hullo, the more beautiful the woman, inverting the original intention of the process.
There are still many other tribes in the region such as the Wancho of Arunachal Pradesh who still tattoo tribesmen, but as external influences begin to creep in at an increasing rate and globalisation begins to grip the region like an ever tightening vice, the art of tribal tattooing in Northeast India is beginning to slowly, but surely fade.
All images and text has been created by Christo, to find out more visit his website here: http://christogeoghegan.com
I was very excited to receive my copy of Drawing with Great Needles, a new compilation of essays published by the University of Texas Press on Native American tattooing in North America. The book claims to be “the first book length scholarly examination into the antiquity, meaning, and significance of Native American tattooing in the Eastern Woodlands and Great Plains.” Despite my initial eagerness to delve into the volume, I felt that as a whole, Drawing with Great Needles suffered from methodological and thematic issues. Although I am neither a tattoo expert nor an anthropologist and cannot speak to the accuracy of the historical sources presented in its many essays, I did take issues with some of the broader claims of the volume and the evidence used to make them.
Some of the issues in the book become apparent in its introduction. In the summary of Chapter 1, editors Aaron Deter-Wolf and Carol Diaz-Granados explain how Antoinette Wallace’s essay “compiles ethnohistorical documentation and art historical evidence of Native American tattooing…These accounts from European and Euro-American explorers, settlers, and artists provide an essential window into the extent and variety of indigenous tattoo traditions that existed prior to European contact.” The notion of reconstructing a practice as it existed pre-contact by using post-contact, often biased colonial documents seems to me a problematic exercise, and, frankly doesn’t accurately reflect what Wallace does in her essay. In fact, Wallace thoroughly acknowledges the problems inherent in using colonial sources in her synthetic study of colonial texts and images. Some of the other essays in the volume do, however, un-critically use these kinds of sources in analyses of tattoo motifs and iconography without accounting to the historical specificity of tattooing and the documents that record it.
Another pattern that bothered me was the nonchalance of cross-cultural comparisons. Benjamin A. Steere’s essay, for example, tried to make a case for the plausibility of Swift Creek paddle designs being used as tattoo designs. To set a precedent for this “admittedly speculative” (by his own admission) claim, he discussed the tattooing and craft practices of tribal people in Africa and Borneo. I felt, however that this type of comparison neglected the cultural and historical specificity of tattooing in each place, reducing what could have been an in-depth analysis of Native American practice into a essentializing and reductive argument about “primitive” people across the world. For example, his discussion of anthropomorphic pottery in Africa provided some culturally-specific evidence behind the intersection in pottery and tattoo designs that did not exist in his discussion of Native America. His suggestions for further research, however, were very intriguing, and I hope they are followed through. As someone who studies art history, I was personally confused by F. Kent Reilly’s invocation of both Panofsky and “Myer [sic] Schapiro,” neither of which were examined in their full complexity and specificity (and even necessarily correctly, though perhaps that’s misreading on my part).
I do not want to discount some of the important work presented in this volume. Surely, the synthesis of colonial documents and prior scholarly work in the field is a worthwhile endeavor. Deter-Wolf’s essay, which used comparative archeological evidence to present a means of identifying tattoo instruments was very helpful. Furthermore, many of the essays presented here, especially Lars Krutak’s chapters suggest further thematic points of study. Not only does he contextualize tattooing motifs within Native American culture, but his thoughts regarding facial tattooing and the mouth as a “liminal zone” interested me by discussing the tattoos within context, on the body. Many essays in this volume established the aesthetic precedents for tattooing in other types of artistic practice, so I appreciated Krutak’s thoughts on why tattoos were placed where they were. I also found his photographs of ornamented deer skins intriguing, and wonder about the connection between the many sets of tattooed skin.
Essentially, I feel like this field of study requires a shift in focus, from trying to reconstruct traditional or “ancient” meanings and practices to thinking about the complexity of these practices after contact. If tattoos did have ritual functions, how did these functions change after the introduction of metal tattooing needles rather than the faunal instruments used previously? What can colonial interactions and the critical examination of colonial texts on tattooing tell us about the people who were observing as well as the people being observed (and what about the interaction between the two)? Furthermore, I think that scholars will need to grapple more strenuously with the issues and complexities created by the historical specificity of their sources, including images, which were often stylized or staged. Hopefully that will allow a more fruitful investigation into this interesting body of work in the future.
If anyone else has read the book (especially tattoo experts/anthropologists/historians), I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Jack W. Groves was born in 1925 of British descent. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Groves visited Apia, Samoa, creating an extensive collection of drawings depicting tattoos he had seen on the Samoan population
Now part of the British Museum’s collection, Groves’s drawings offer a unique insight mid 20th century tattoo practices in Samoa. The British Museum’s online collection holds 56 examples of Groves’s drawings, primarily illustrations of tribal tattooing on Samoan men (of the 56 drawings, only 2 are of women’s tattoos). One interesting feature worth noting is the appearance of distinctly Western motifs, which are in one instance applied alongside traditional tribal tattoos.
For more images and information see the British Museum’s online collection here.
“Drawing; image of a Samoan tattoo. 1940s-1950s.Pigment ink.”
“Drawing; three views of a section of Tafao’s leg, from the front, back and side, showing tattoos. May 1949. Pigment ink and watercolour.”
“Drawing; image of a section of the top half of a female leg and female genitals, showing tattoos. May 1951.Graphite.”
“Drawing; image of a male torso and legs; from the front, and from the back showing tattoos. January 1952. Pigment ink and watercolour.”
“Drawing; image of eighteen Samoan tattoos. 1940s-1950s. Pigment ink.”
From the early childhood Fyodor Ivanovich Tolstoy was always characterised as violently tempered. This became fully evident when, after graduating from the Marine Corps, he entered military service (for some reason not in the navy but in the Preobrazhenskiy regiment), where he soon managed to distinguish himself by shooting a son of an aristocratic family in a duel. The position of Tolstoy soon became very poor – a rough punishment should be committed immediately. It was obvious that in such a situation in order to avoid investigation and trial the best way was to hide. Without thinking, he took the place of his cousin, who, in a group of Kruzenstern and Lisyansky had to participate in a colossal circumnavigation – the first in the history of Russian navy. That trip made him an American. Fedor’s behaviour during the voyage was extremely unpredictable, he amused himself as he could. One of the stories is connected with the stop near Nukuhiva island. A local craftsman tattooed his body literally from head to toe, only his head and foot were free from Polynesian figures. For those days for a man of noble origin it was a completely wild performance, but Tolstoy was very pleased with what he did. And later, in St. Petersburg, the demonstration of his tattooes was a favourite sight for his close friends. After dinner parties Fedor would undress to the waist in front of the audience, and then accompanied only by men he would retire to a private room, where completely naked, he would display his body covered with knotted ornaments depicting fantastic snakes and birds.
The Customized Body is a book written by Ted Polehemus (author of the iconic Street Style) with interviews and photographs by Housk Randall first published in 1996. Split into sections such as – Body Painting and Make-Up, Tattooing and Scarification, Jewellery and Piercing, Gender Transformation the book gives a thorough insight into the then thriving body modification scene especially prevalent in London with the likes of Torture Garden and the modern primitivism scene being in full swing. Mr Pearl, Nicola Bowery and Curly can all be seen in this book too. Zoom in to see the captions.
Lets not forget to appreciate Herzog’s re- appropriation of Puccini’s O Soave Fanciulla (Oh You Vision of Beauty) an aria from La Boheme filmed in Ethiopia of the Mursi people. Herzog was asked to re-imagine an operatic number in purely visual terms by the English National Opera in 2009 in which it was filmed “in High Definition allowing us to juxtapose the traditions of opera with a real innovative setting, the uniqueness of which is hopefully reflected in the final film.” This original piece of opera expresses intimacy but Herzog let his four (very beautiful) couples leave each other after staring into the camera and separating into the bush never to see one another again. In retrospect this is an exceptionally simple idea, very little actually happens but its rich visual and sonic quality’s completly overwhelm this sublime four and a half minute film.
A 1908 colonial photograph of the adorned hand of a Tinguian woman from the Dean Worcester collection. Worcester’s photographs, created during the heyday of physiognomy and anthropometry in Europe and the US, documented physical characteristics and measurements of tribal peoples with the goal of scientifically categorizing the world’s different races. The scarred “tattoo” in this photograph, however, is particularly intricate and beautiful.