In northwestern Myanmar, the indigenous Chin people have a unique tradition of tattooing the women’s faces. In 2012, Belgian artist Christian Develter travelled to the region to meet these women, which served as an inspiration for his series Chin Urban & Tribal. He discusses his experience of living with the tribes, and his thoughts on the now-illegal tattooing practice
Originally the women of the Chin tribes were tattooed as a form of identification, so that they could not be stolen by kings or other chieftains. The practice has now evolved into something more aesthetic. Do you feel the tattoos give the woman a sense of empowerment and independence, or could it be seen as a misogynistic tradition?
I think for many of these women the tattoos were a rite of passage. It marked an important moment or turning point in their lives, helped them find their place in the community. But maybe at the same time, they felt a sense of self – not only through these special markings on their faces, but the whole experience of getting through the fear and pain.
I’m not a woman, but I think many women have something – social or cultural, [such as] makeup, clothing, jewellery – which helps them feel beautiful and empowered, but nevertheless answers to certain ideas or ideals of how they should look and be. I don’t think it’s necessarily ‘misogynistic’, but women, more than men, are judged by the way they look – both by men and by women.
What was it like spending time with the tribes? Did you learn anything from their way of life?
Myanmar has been a fairly closed country until quite recently. And even as it opens up, it’s not always easy to travel everywhere: permits, access, and infrastructure [are all obstacles]. It’s easy to wax lyrical about the old way of life: the idyllic villages, the pace, the traditions; but young people are moving on as they become more connected and want to see more of the world. I saw people at the cusp of change and trying to make sense of the outside world – as they knew it – coming in. What I did learn was that the Chin were welcoming and non-judgmental of strangers, and have a amazing sense of humour seriously.
It is possible that their traditions will soon disappear, as the tattooing is now illegal in Myanmar? Do you believe it is important to save these traditions?
The older generation – women in their 70s, 80s – tell me that the tattoos will die with the last of them. Some of the younger women say they will hang on to them as this is their culture and community. Others are breaking away from the old life and ways.
There is a real interest in learning more and documenting these traditions – I for one am here and inspired by them. But I think it is for the Chins to continue with their culture and traditions as they feel is best for them. It would be a shame if this became just another ‘tourist showcase’ without the opportunity for the culture to evolve with time – even if it meant the end of the tattoos. By painting them I feel I might contribute – in a small way – to preserve them for future generations.
Why did you decide to mix contemporary with traditional in your series of paintings based on the Chin tribes of Myanmar?
I think there’s something timeless about the tattoos – the way the lines and shapes frame and become part of the women’s faces. This series was just my way of bringing this to the canvas – as bold and sublime as the tattoos and the women who carried them.
Do you have any future projects lined up? If so, what are they?
I always felt there was little attention or nuance in the way women were portrayed biblically: often two-dimensional saints or victims waiting to be “saved”. My next project is a celebration of them: strengths and flaws as I plan to re-interpret depictions of Eve, the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene. For this, I hope to travel to countries where these women are venerated – maybe to South America, where Christianity is infused with the lingering colours and scents of old pagan practices. And certainly also the Philippines!
Christian Develter’s work is available at One Eleven Gallery in Siem Reap, Cambodia