Tag Archives: National Geographic

The Re-Presentation of Western-style Dress in National Geographic, September 1971


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).

‘L’Origami du Monde’: 032c Turns Ethnographic Gaze Onto National Geographic

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As I approach the last six months of my thesis, I’m currently in the process of piecing together a coherent visual narrative from the hundreds of pages of images I’ve examined over the last two and a half years. And there are a fair few; my thesis examines over one hundred years of National Geographic magazine’s representation of Brazilian dress, with a focus on the period since 1988, when the magazine celebrated its centennial. These magazine images are all contextualised, of course, by numerous examples from contemporary visual media, as I’ve tried to analyse the networks of meaning produced across the global mediascape.


Yet it was only fairly recently that a colleague passed on the Autumn/Winter 2013 25th edition of 032c, which featured an interesting pop-up art piece on National Geographic. I was curious to find out what sort of framework this Berlin-based contemporary culture magazine (which has been described by New York Times journalist Andreas Tsortzis as ‘below the radar of mainstream, but required reading for the movers and doyennes of the art and fashion world’) would adopt in commemorating the Washington-D.C. based, and now unequivocally mainstream, National Geographic. Entitled ‘L’Origami du Monde’, the artwork was created by French artist Cyprien Galliard to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the popular ‘scientific’ and educational journal. Gaillard is, after all, an avid collector of National Geographic. As he told Purple magazine: “It’s the kind of magazine your father had. It was this prism that you looked at the world through. There’s something very colonial about it.”


National Geographic was first established as a tall, slim scientific brochure devoid of images with a dull brown-coloured cover in September 1888.  It’s now a global brand that encompasses cable television, books, maps, merchandising, additional magazines and a website, all easily recognisable by its popular motif: a bright yellow border. Gaillard’s artwork in 032c juxtaposed six brightly coloured photographs sourced from unknown locations in the trajectory of National Geographic’s documentation of ‘the world and all there is in it’. The instructions that accompanied it read:

‘Gaillard’s art edition for O32c can be assembled by making three simple folds from left to right into the inside hinge of the magazine. No glue is required. This anachronistic monument is held together by tension’.

So the interpretation of the artwork, I quickly realised, was entirely dependent upon the 032c viewer, who acquired an active as opposed to passive participatory role in its construction. This offered an interesting twist on the common complaints about National Geographic’s distanced ethnographic gaze, which has rendered subjects as dehumanised objects. Rather than analyse National Geographic at arm’s length, as many of its harsher critics have, Gaillard provided a critical and material re-engagement with the magazine at close quarters, and encouraged readers to do the same. This provided an alternative re-reading of National Geographic that cut through its purportedly disinterested anthropological gaze. Of course, for the naïve reader, there is no doubt an excitement in looking at colourful photographs culled from National Geographic. Indeed, some might deduce that the aesthetic qualities of Gaillard’s sculptural collage present a further aesthetisisation and exploitation of National Geographic subjects. I would argue, however, that the aesthetic is a critical device used here by Gaillard to subtly draw the reader in, in order to then boldly undermine their preconceptions of National Geographic, by treating the magazine itself as exotic specimen.


Crucially, Gaillard’s sculptural collage was designed not just to be read, but to be felt too. The O32c viewer had to physically assemble the artwork with her hands, a process that encouraged readers to rethink dressed National Geographic subjects in multidimensional terms, experienced concurrently as image and object. As a result, L’Origami du Monde hinted at the way in which National Geographic has communicated with its readership not just in terms of linguistic signification or effect, but also through the sensations, memories, emotions and affect that have been folded into its representations of dressed Brazilian subjects.

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032c Issue 25 Winter 2013/4, pp. 158-167

Andreas Tsortzis, ‘A new breed of fashion magazine comes into vogue’, New York Times, August 20, 2007

Sven Schuman, ‘Cyprien Gailard: Architectural Hangover’, Purple, Issue 18 Autumn/Winter 2012