Images of Myanmar Jens Uwe Parkitny
What fascinates the photographer about the facial patterns of the Chin and what are the viewers’ reactions to your portraits of the women?
From the first moment I was fascinated by the artwork in the faces of the Chin-women, how each tattoo is a unique piece, perfectly adapted to the individual’s face. They represent a beauty ideal which often appears alien to the Western viewer. Although one can find body piercings and tattoos throughout the social classes in Western societies, facial tattoos are still a taboo and are socially sanctioned.
Which elements and forms differentiate the facial tattoos of the various tribes of the Chin?
This is a question which demands more intensive engagement by anthropologists and ethnologists. The Chin in Myanmar are not a homogeneous group, but consist of at least 53 different groups speaking 44 languages and dialects, in addition to demonstrating a variety of cultural marks. Only about a dozen of these groups have passed on the tradition of tattooing the faces of girls and young women. There is undoubtedly a connection between the symbolism used in the respective material cultures, such as the woven works and the tattooed patterns. However, hitherto no one has made the effort to take a very close look and study this aspect. If one considers the fact that some of the Chin groups only tattoo girls after they have acquired the skill of weaving, the connection is obvious.
We are talking about Chin women, never Chin men. Is the focus on women rooted within Chin culture?
Certainly! For instance among the Naga in Myanmar and India, who are linguistically related to the Chin, both young men and women have their faces tattooed. By contrast, only girls between the age of 7 and 15 years undergo this painful procedure in the Chin tribes. It is a rite of passage, a ritual which embodies the transition from girlhood to womanhood. In some groups there were only female tattooing-masters, such as among the Laytu. In other groups such as the Ubtu there were, as far as I know, both male and female masters.
How are the facial patterns and the patterns on the traditional fabrics connected to a local cultural unity?
Self-woven tunics with sophisticated, colour-coordinated patterns as well as silver necklaces, finger rings and earplugs are complemented with complex tattoo patterns, for example among the Laytu-Chin women, creating a striking and captivating appearance. A holistic approach taking in both the facial tattoos as well as the clothes and the jewellery has so far been missing in approaches to the Chin culture. Until now, only individual aspects have been studied, detached from each other, resulting in an incomplete image of this ethnic group and their culture.
Do the patterns provide insights into the lives of their bearers? What is the meaning of rich decoration vis-à-vis those instances of monochrome colouring of the entire face?
Upon studying the everyday clothes of the Ubtu Chin women, whose faces are tattooed entirely black, this connection seems to at least exist with reference to their clothing: It is coloured completely dark, without any patterns. However, during festivities, the women put on a different garment, which is woven with elaborate patterns, in addition to shawls made out of cotton and silk, draped around the head, which one hundred years ago used to be black, red and white. This also goes for the Sunghtu-Chin women, whose facial tattoos consist of a very intricate, complex pattern of lines.
Before ca. 1950 it was very difficult to acquire chemically coloured cottons and silks in the remote mountain regions of the Chin State and the Rakhine State. In general, Chin women grew their own cotton or bought it from merchants. For the colouring of the fabrics indigo and other plant dyes were used. The colour spectrum was therefore very limited and black-blue, white and red dominated the fabrics. The flamboyant tunics of the Laytu-Chin, which the women still occasionally wear today, looked very different one hundred years ago.
In 2017 your Chin-portraits were published by Kerber-Verlag alongside illustrations and close-ups of the weaving patterns in the book “Marked for Life”. It also contains a translation of contributions in Burmese language.
I think it is very important, because even in Myanmar it is not common knowledge how many of the official 53 Chin groups practice the tradition of facial tattoos, how their patterns differ and what they symbolise. The popular tale of the origin of the Chin facial tattoos says that the practice emerged as a pre-emptive measure to prevent the abduction of Chin women by the Bama king, using tattoos to destroy their beautiful faces. However, this is a fabricated story, a myth. There is no historical proof supporting this assumption, and with everything we know about this practice among other peoples, it is more likely that it serves an entirely different purpose: They signal group belonging, social status, beauty, and are a visual expression of a successful transition from childhood to adulthood. Beyond this, they serve as spiritual protection both during and after their lifetime.
Where lies the difference between the colonial Chin illustration of Major Michael Symes from the 18th century and your present photographs?
For Major Michael Symes, whom we can thank for the first depiction of a Chin woman and her husband in ethnic clothing, it was about creating an image which was as detailed as possible. The drawing, which was made in 1795 and was printed in his book 5 years later, is until today an impressive testimony of a past tradition, for one can even recognise the pattern of the facial tattoo of the woman. It is, however, not a pattern which can be assigned to any of the Chin-groups known to me. For me, on the other hand, it was important to portray the aesthetics of this beauty ideal, which is different from ours. In order to do this, I had to develop my own perspective, moving beyond the pure documentary photography. I tried to accomplish this by using a neutral background and close-up shots.
Is there more to the military regime’s ban on this traditional practice than the protection of the human right to personal physical integrity?
That is very difficult to say – here I can only make assumptions, something I am not entitled to. A traditional facial tattoo is generally a very visible cultural sign of identification which allows the viewer to recognise which ethnicity its bearer belongs to.
How do the Chin women respond to the question of the origin of their tattoos today?
Most of the Chin-women whom I talked to – more than a hundred – with the assistance of a translator replied that all the women in their village had tattooed their faces and that they considered it beautiful. The knowledge about the origin of this tradition has sadly been lost a long time ago. Even when Major Michael Symes posed the same question, the reply of the Chin-people was that it had been a common practice “from time immemorial”.
Will there be a revival of facial tattoos among the Chin or do your photographs show the last Chin-women from a tradition which is facing extinction?
The world is currently experiencing a re-emergence of traditional facial tattoos, for instance among the Maori-women in New Zealand, the American native peoples in the USA and among the Inuit in Canada. They are educated, confident women who carry a strong awareness and pride of their cultural roots and for whom the tattoo represents a visual expression of this. It will probably take some time until we see a revival of this practice among the Chin-women in Myanmar, but I am confident that this too will follow at some point. Hopefully, the portraits and the detailed illustrations of the tattoo-patterns which I created over the course of two years allow future generations to understand and revert to their ancestral patterns.