Three female subjects stand side-on in a forest clearing, next to the remains of a smoldering fire. They do not look at the photographer but appear to be posing for another photograph, which is being taken by someone to the left of the photograph frame. They have short dark bobbed hair, wear necklaces of dyed nuts and red string, and have painted geometric lines on their faces in black fruit dye. The central subject and her companion on the right have used black and red body paint to divide up and deconstruct their bodies, fragmenting them into separate parts. This sophisticated process isolates arms, chest, hips, legs, and ankle, and departs from the more prescriptive methods by which Western-style clothing tends to perceive of the clothed body as unified whole. For these women, painted and unpainted body parts become interdependent and have equal significance: both the positive shapes formed by the paint, but also the negative spaces in between those shapes. This process of decontextualising one’s own body parts, and perceiving each as an object or commodity in and of itself, demonstrates a self-reflexive gaze through which these women address their own bodies with a comparable level of scrutiny to that placed on them by the photographic gaze. These women are part of the Cinta Largas group, indigenous to the Western Amazon in Brazil, and have been captured by Brazilian filmmaker Jesco von Puttkamer in 1971 for National Geographic magazine.
The women re-invent Western-style dress through their use of body paint, in a process that draws on the particularities of Cinta Largas material culture. The resulting ensemble creates shifting points of reference that are comparable to an observation made by Claude Levi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques (1995). Levi-Strauss described how the sophisticated Spanish American Caduveo Indians (also called the Mbaya) appropriated aspects of the uniform worn by Spanish sailors in the mid-nineteenth century through their customary practice of body painting:
After the Indians saw a European warship for the first time, when the Maracanha sailed up the Paraguay in 1857, the sailors noticed the next day that their bodies were covered with anchor-shaped motifs; one Indian even had an officer’s uniform painted in great detail all over his torso – with buttons and stripes, and the sword-belt over the coat-tails.
Levi-Straus acknowledged the Mbaya’s appropriation and re-presentation of the Spanish sailors’ uniforms, which retained their visual motifs and design details but transformed them through the use of body paint. This process enabled them to negotiate new sartorial meanings relevant to the sociopolitical organisation of their own culture. In National Geographic, the women’s painted clothing is a comparably fluid demonstration of the subjects’ creative self-invention, which refutes claims made within the text that the Cinta Largas are a static and ‘simple culture’, about to be eroded by a ‘strong, complex one’. The subjects’ dressed bodies become a site of heterogeneous potentiality, which, rather than reiterate the disintegration of Cinta Largas culture, demonstrate its ongoing creative renewal through dress that is receptive to contact with other cultures.
Jesco von Puttkamer, ‘Brazil Protects Her Cinta Largas’, National Geographic, pp. 420-444.
Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, trans by. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman (London: Penguin Books, 1992).