Makeup as Ritual: Man as Art

Mendi girl, Tente village, Southern Highlands

We in the beauty business like to think of ourselves as modern – we try the newest products, seek the latest tricks, and read up the latest technologies. And don’t get us started on gadgets…

But all this emphasis on the new and improved disguises one essential truth about makeup: that we humans have been painting ourselves for just about forever.

We were painting ourselves before we were painting our walls. And we were definitely painting ourselves before we were using metal tools – at least 30,000 years before, according to archaeological records. This insistence on personal decoration has driven mining, commerce – even war – for far longer than we can fathom without an open history book.

But when we come across tribal cultures that still paint themselves in a manner similar to how they’ve been doing for millennia, instead of looking at them as exotic – or primitive – perhaps we could see them as bringing us back to ourselves.

These images are from the book Man As Art(1981), a collection of portraits by photographer Malcolm Kirk. Kirk, who apprenticed with Irving Penn and photographed legendary artists before this project (see his iconic Andy Warhol), traveled throughout the area over a span of thirteen years.

Most of these images are of people from the Western Highlands area of Papua New Guinea – the fabled “headhunters.” The decorations, worn for ritual dances, are inspired by the markings on birds. Individuality is key, though viewers aren’t supposed to know right away who is under the paint. The colors are symbolic as well, with black symbolizing the male values of aggression and solidarity, yellow and red symbolizing the female values of friendship, sexuality, and cooperation, and white serving as a male intermediary.

Our current opportunities to see these splendid people on display are largely limited to the Goroka Show – the gathering of the tribes from throughout Papua New Guinea that occurs every September around Independence Day. The Goroka Show started in 1957, and now brings over a hundred tribes together to dance, sing, and show off their individual culture. It’s part tourism and part cultural preservation – and we just missed the last one.

All photographs by Malcolm Kirk.

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