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A celebration of art on skin

Olivier de Bernon, author of Yantra et Mantra, will be speaking on Cambodian ritual tattooing on Saturday February 6 as part of the French Institute’s upcoming exhibition Adorned Body, Transformed Body. The exhibition – first shown at the Perfume Museum in Grasse, southern France – charts the complex and varied history of make-up, body paint, tattoos, piercing and other bodily transformations around the world.

According to Gregory Couderc, one of the exhibition’s co-curators, the magical function of bodily adornment no longer plays a role in Western countries. “In the Occident, tattoos are more or less devoid of magic, even though they may well have emotional significance for the wearer,” he explained via email. “The aesthetics of the pattern outweigh the profound meaning.”

But he said that Southeast Asia was by no means the only place where spirituality and superstition played a part in getting inked: in Papau New Guinea, the Iatmul ethnic group perform scarification during a coming-of-age ritual that mimics the scales of the crocodile god, and in India and the Maghreb, kohl make-up is believed to protect against evil attacks.

And in Europe, Couderc pointed out, tattoos continue to act as important social signifiers, particularly for communicating sub-culture affiliation among punks and goths. The same is true the world over: in New Zealand and Polynesia, tattoos are strictly coded in ways that announce social hierarchies.

Couderc said that while “borrowing” between cultures had always existed, globalisation had accentuated this trend. “In passing from one civilisation to another, bodily markers lose their traditional significance, their magic, as well as the beliefs that surround them,” he wore. “Only the aesthetic persists.”

Adorned Body, Transformed Body opens at the French Institute, #218 Street 184, on Thursday, January 28.

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