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.
Since 2002, Montreal’s annual Expozine has brought thousands of visitors together for two days in November for Canada’s largest zine fair. Expozine’s 2013 edition took place this past weekend in the basement of the Église St-Enfant Jésus church, exhibiting small run publications from zines to books with diverse content ranging from left wing literature to graphic art, poetry,photography, art theory, and countless others.
We were in attendance and are happy to present to you our favorite publications below in no particular order.
Jurgen Maelfeyt, Breasts, 2013
Published by Art Paper Editions, Jurgen Maelfeyt’s Breasts presents 32 pages of just that – breasts. An edition of 250, the pages in Breasts consist of uncensored, grainy black-and-white photos of female breasts. Cropped from the rest of the body, Maelfeyt’s images confront the viewer directly, creating a voyeuristic relationship between the viewer and the photographs. This results in a certain level of objectification, where one must evaluate his or her own gaze in relation to the breasts, while simultaneously illustrating the natural beauty of the female form.
eil, Jon Estwards, 2013
eil by Montreal-based photographer Jon Estwards consists of 24 colour pages of Polaroid and 35mm photographs. Many of the images in the zine display Estward’s self-taught fibre process, which gives the images an organic feeling – bridging the gap between those depicted in the images and the natural settings they are photographed in.
Alexandre Lemire, “– – – IS – – WAS”, 2013
Published in an edition of 40, the opening page of Alexandre Lemire’s “– – – IS – – WAS” states “TURNED FROM AN IS TO A WAS BEFORE HE EVEN HIT THE GROUND.” The title of the zine seems to suggested a shortened and cryptic form of this quotation. Like the title, Lemire’s photographs are equally mysterious. Printed entirely in colour, Lemire’s photographs consistently display and reference the human presence in the urban landscape, while at the same time, are entirely devoid of people.
Tomé Duarte, Nome de Doenca Rara, 2012
Tomé Duarte’s 2012 zine Nome De Doenca Rara displays what is perhaps the epitome of the homemade zine aesthetic – raw, no nonsense, black-and-white xeroxed pages. Published in an edition of 100, Duarte’s zine consists of 35mm photographs, collage, drawing, Polaroid photos, and contact sheet scans. With content ranging from photos of a dead body in a casket to various instances of nudity, Nome De Doenca Rara presents a gritty slice of life through this Porto-based photographer’s point of view.
In 2007, researchers uncovered what appeared to be the oldest prosthetic appendage, a wood and leather toe from Thebes dated to 1069 – 664 BC. Since then, many thousands of years of war injuries, deformities, and illnesses have necessitated countless other prostheses. Over the years, many of them have been designed to look increasingly subtle, to meld seamlessly with their owners’ bodies, but here are a few more elaborate, artful versions that are at once creepy, intricate, and intriguing.
Perhaps designed more with function than aesthetics in mind, the prosthetic hand of Göts von Berlichingen (or Götz of the Iron Hand) is nevertheless a remarkable example of elegant design. After losing his hand to cannon fire in 1504, Götz acquired an armored hand that allowed for protection and flexibility in holding everything from “a sword to a feather pen.”
Made from brass and steel, this Victorian prosthetic hand (1850-1910) allowed for flexible wrist and finger movement. The London Science Museum claims that “the rather sinister appearance of the hand suggests the wearer may have disguised it with a glove,” which, to me, is a shame; it’s open structure and contoured perforations display both an aesthetic sensibility and sense of technological modernity.
Looking to outfit her in something other than sprinting blades, Alexander McQueen designed these wooden boots for the Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins in 1999. Mullins modeled them, along with a leather corset (that to me, evokes the part of vintage prosthetics that molds to the body) and ruffled skirt for his No. 13 show.
The two sets of limbs below were created by the artist Sophie de Oliveira Barata as part of The Alternative Limbs Project, which provides wearers with limbs ranging from the hyperrealistic to the “surreal” and “unreal.” The first of these pieces, coated in Swarovski crystals, was created for the Ice Queen role of the 2012 London Paralympic Closing Ceremony. The second is dubbed the “Wooden Arm,” and supposedly features hidden compartments.
From Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood:
“The two young men had little in common, but they did not realize it, for they shared a number of surface traits…The tattoos face of a cat, blue and grinning, covered [Hickock's] right hand; on one shoulder a blue rose blossomed. More markings, self-designed and self-executed, ornamented his arms and torso: the head of a dragon with a human skull between its open jaws; bosomy nudes; a gremlin brandishing a pitchfork; the word Peace accompanied by a cross radiating, in the form of crude strokes, rays of holy light; and two sentimental concoctions–one a bouquet of flowers dedicated to MOTHER-DAD, the other a heart that celebrated the romance of DICK and CAROL, the girl whom he had married when he was nineteen…
“While [Smith] had fewer tattoos than his companion, they were more elaborate–not the self-inflicted work of anamateur but epics of the art contrived by Honolulu and Yokohama masters. COOKIE, the name of a nurse who had been friendly to him when he was hospitalized, was tattooed on his right biceps. Blue-furred, orange-eyed, red-fanged, a tiger snarled upon his left biceps; a spitting snake, coiled around a dagger, slithered down his arm; and elsewhere skulls gleamed, a tombstone loomed, a chrysanthemum flourished.
For the first time Bourdin’s work as a painter and his notes on film will be exhibited alongside his famed fashion photographs at this retrospective at the Kunstmeile Hamburg. The photographer’s detached and surreal cinematic style will be celebrated as expected but the exhibition will also show his detailed working method which has led onto him being considered one of the most visionary and important photographer’s in fashion history. Black and White photographs dating back to the 1950s showing portraits of Bourdin and views of the Paris that he lived in alongside sketches and notes will all be on show together. His photographs are known for being an area of which to present the fear of horror movies crossed with the uneasy mystery of a murder films all engulfed in layers of impenetrable glamour where the fashionable object on show becomes highly fetishised. Desire and sex are obsessive themes but he was able to turn around our expected notions of lust as something confusing, something filled with anxiety . There was this aspect of creating hyper-real landscapes in his work, skyless rooms with overpowering colour which resulted in an over all feeling of intense claustrophobia to his photography. These themes contrasted with models who appear so perfectly glamourised but simultaneously anonymous created wonderful but terrifying images.
His photographs will always be highly regarded and receive endless appraisal but what will be especially interesting in this exhibition will be the focus on Bourdin as an individual. His own personal life has been shrouded in as much mystery as his work radiates, dark rumours have always orbited him. The suicide of his wife and two of his girlfriend, his mother abandoning him as an infant and his treatment of the models being unpredictable are well none facts. Hopefully the exhibition will be able to delve into new light about this uncompromising photographer where it opens on the 1st of November as well as being a space to celebrate the importance and innovativeness of him as an artist.
If you haven’t already seen the documentary Dream girls - The photography of Guy Bourdin you can watch it here
You can also find out more details about the exhibition here
1 NOVEMBER 2013 – 26 JANUARY 2014
Trephination, or the practice of drilling holes into one’s skull, is a neurological procedure that has been employed all over the globe since the Neolithic period. Due its importance in treating a range of intra-cranial maladies, different cultures developed a range of highly effective tools and methods for drilling into the skulls of living patients.
Inca people in Pre-Columbian Peru, for example, used metal scalpels and obsidian blades to treat a range of problems, from the physical to the mental to the spiritual; there is evidence that the practice was employed both by highly trained “surgeons” and somewhat less precise “shamans.” Some studies claim that the practice was entirely religious and that retrieved circles of bone were worn as amulets. Despite the invasive nature of the surgery, many skulls from this period show signs of repair, implying that patients survived after surgery, and some skulls even display signs of multiple procedures.
Europe serves as home to many of the oldest trepanned skulls, many dating over 6000 years old. The process, however, endured well through the Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period. As late as the 17th Century, scientists continued to illustrate volumes depicting the process and tools with which the brain surgery was performed. The image below, for example, is from accomplished surgeon Johannes Scultetus’s 1655 volume Armamentarium chirurgicum.
Known as “The Greek Albanian,” Captain Costentenus was a circus performer and believed prince who was active during the 1870s. Tattooed on every part of his body except the soles of his feet, Costentenus claimed to have acquired his tattoos after being kidnapped in Burma and held down for three hours each morning to get tattooed by Chinese Tatars. Though his tattoos depicted Burmese species and Eastern mythology, it is widely believed Costentenus had himself tattooed for the purpose of a lucrative career in show business. The plan proved successful, as the performer ultimately commanded a base salary of $1000/week at the height of his career.
A New York Times article from August 9, 1880 remarked that “half the people who visited [Captain Costentenus,] this last specimen of Grecian art, looked as if they would be quite willing to go through the process of having their skins embroidered, if thereby they could insure a comfortable living without labor.”