The Human Body as a Canvas: Inspiring Artists Who Create Culturally Significant Work with Body Paint

The act of painting on the body is NOT a new concept. The method of using body as an artistic statement started in 1961, but my first exposure to body art was pop-culture. I discovered it with Emma Hack’s work with Gotye for the music video “Somebody I Used To Know".

Emma Hack, an Australian artist, considers herself a skin illustrator and, here she discusses the 23-hours painting process that was named by Billboard, as one of the 20 best music videos of the 2010s (so far).

Her work explores the modern-day relationship, in a visually stunning stop motion video.

Body painting has actually seen commercial light with a number of music videos. But what’s the difference in the application of body painting in these videos?

Maroon 5’s Love Somebody

Body painting as merely an aesthetic value, it does not play any significant artistic contribution besides making the video look more visually appealing.

Beyonce's Sorry (Lemonade)

Laolu Senbanjo’s work on the dancers in Beyonce’s music video clip may seem simple with geometric, swirling patterns compared to the rest, however there’s a cultural significance to their collaboration.

He calls his artworks Sacred Art of the Ori, noting that the origin of this practice derives from a spiritual Yoruba ritual, from Nigeria.

"The Yoruba people conceive of rituals as journeys—sometimes actual, sometimes virtual. Performed as a parade or a procession, a pilgrimage, a masking display, or possession trance, the journey evokes the reflexive, progressive, transformative experience of ritual participation."

Their collaboration was on-point, powerful and it added a visual connection among the dancers, making them appear as one entity for the viewer.

Thaikkudam Bridge's Navarasam

The vividly painted face in Navarasam however is a league of its own. Part of a classical dance called "Kathakali" practiced in the southwest region of India, this particular face painting format originated around the 17th century, made from rice paste and vegetable colors.

Because there is a rich history to this distinctive art form, the storyline for this music video is based on the death of an art form.

So when I saw Xie Rong’s work from ChengDu, China, the cultural significance in her work was immediately apparent.

Also known as Echo Morgan now, as she is residing in UK, she says, “My narrative is rooted with my family history. I explore my individual memory that is deeply embodied with China’s complex society. I often transform the surface of my body into symbols: Chinese national flag, blue and white porcelain, gold fish, Chinese landscape painting, rice balls and jade.”

Many years later, I was reminded of Emma Hack’s work by my friend Charis Loke, who met the internationally acclaimed artist in-person, during an exhibition in Singapore.

I fell in love with her work again. This time with much appreciation of her intricate elements and how she amazingly blends her illustration on the model against the backdrop.

But as much as I admire the beauty in her work, I was using the body to make a statement about street-harassment, and what I was trying to achieve was beyond an aesthetic value.

When Culture Trip asked me the significance of the body working as a canvas, here’s what I said: "It was reclaiming the human body literally as the title holds, ‘This Body is MINE’. The images wouldn’t have held the same ferocity if I had painted it on a blank white canvas.

Harshini Devi Retna photographed by Vinoth Raj Pillai

It was the dancers who brought the images alive, with their bold gazes and strong poses, adding the dance narrative as another layer. Secondly, I wanted to challenge the ideal body types and skin colour perpetuated by media, especially fashion advertising. These were everyday women like you and me, comfortable in their skin."

Nalina Nair, photographed by Vicknes Waran.

Claudia Sahuquillo’s from Barcelona, Spain uses social media, primarily Instagram with the hashtag #SkinIsTheNewCanvas to normalize nudity. Her art is more recent and direct influence on my work as a feminist. However, I thought her work was lacking representation in body diversity.

More recently, I discovered the works of Andy Golub. I think his work might be the closest aspiration I have as an artist.

His work has been so impactful that it has changed nudity laws in New York City. Golub's work is both interactive and spontaneous. He does not objectify his models, but relies on a spiritual connection between artist and model for inspiration.

Golub has painted models of all shapes and sizes, people with disabilities, cancer patients, the elderly and people of all genders. The largest human canvas painting to date is 17 models.

My current body painting project?

ANTIDOTE: Uncovering Skin & Soul featuring 30 intimate stories by 30 diverse women that was translated to body art in 30 days. The project was conducted in March 2018 during my residency in Rimbun Dahan, an arts centre outside Kuala Lumpur that runs one of the oldest art residencies in the Southeast Asia region. Read more about the project here.


"Body Art Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. 2018. Content compiled and written by Anna Souter Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols Available from:

James G. Lochtefeld (2002). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: A-M. The Rosen Publishing Group. p. 359. ISBN 978-0-8239-3179-8.

Margaret Thompson Drewal (1992) Yoruba Ritual: Performers, Play, Agency. Indiana University Press. ISBN: 978-0-253-11273-6

"Echo Morgan Artist Statement". [Internet]. 2013. Available from:

"The Sacred Art of the Ori by Laolu". [Internet]. 2017. Available from:

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