Friday, May 19, 2006

Article Note: On Tattoos and Colonialism

Citation for the article:

Bailkin, Jordanna. "Making Faces: Tattooed Women and Colonial Regimes." History Workshop Journal 59 (Spring 2005): 33-56.

I read the article via Project Muse.

We can probably file this under "odd and curious." At any rate, the article caught my eye, and it took me back to my days of studying postcolonial theory and literature as an English major in a previous life. The article begins with a brief summary of the Chisholm case. In 1889, Malcolm James Chisholm, a British police officer in Burma, was accused of forcibly having the face of his Burmese mistress tattooed. This event sounds like the type of thing for tabloid news, but the event illustrates a lot about the tattoo art and its place in Burmese and British societies. The author claims that "in this article, I explore the phenomenon of tattooed women in British Burma and in London's fashionable circles from the 1880s to the 1920s, investigating the interplay between the body politics of these two groups" (33).

In Europe, tattoos were usually associated with sailors, soldiers, or criminals. However, they enjoyed some popularity in British upper circles during the period from the 1880s to the 1920s, a period of stress for the British aristocracy. Burma as a site of study is significant because during the time period it was seen as a place without an aristocracy, which made it a colonial anomaly. Readers can contrast this situation to the situation in India where the British often played princes and other aristocrats against each other. Tattoos, especially in women, could be problematic:

"In Mandalay, Rangoon, and London, British observers tended to 'read' the phenomenon of tattooed women in remarkably similar ways, that is, as a sign of British failures to rule effectively. In all these locales, tattooed women dramatized a crisis of British global dominance, that was exemplified by the failures of the British men to police, protect, or modenize women's bodies" (35).

In essence, tattooed women signified weak British authority. Burma was a contested site. It was difficult for the British to control it given tribal unrest and metropolitan misgivings about the adventure. Chisholm illustrated some of these issues. He was young and inexperienced, quickly promoted.

Contemporary British investigators suggested that tattooing in Burma had various gendered meanings. For men, some tattoos were significant of spells and power. Face tattoos in males, however, were often punitive, marks for criminals. For women, tattoos had a complex history, often confusing given British ethnographers that often rejected local explanations or misinterpreted what they saw. One meaning was that of tribal resistance against the old Burmese kings, which the British deposed. However, these tattooed women remained to remind the British of tribal defiance and unrest. This type of tattoo puzzled the British. Eventually, some British came to see female Burmese tattoos in erotic terms. Chisholm's crime threw a wrench into this by marking a woman with a punitive form of tattooing:

"In adopting the facial tattoo for his wayward mistres, Chisholm had violated the gendered practices of tattooing in Burma. And, in misapplying native technologies of punishment and governance, the British officer was himself labelled a criminal" (39).

The issue was not what Chisholm did to the woman; the problem is he violated all sorts of norms, not to mention he reinforced the precariousness of the British authorities in Burma. It is interesting to note that at least two London newspapers were sympathetic to Mah Gnee, the mistress, who was never photographed or sketched. British women found the case alluring, in part because Burmese women were seen as more liberated. According to Bailkin, "British scholars frequently praised the equality of Burmese men and women before the law. . ." (41). In addition, "the freedom of Burmese women to obtain divorces, to trade at bazaars, and to enter into contracts on their authority contrasted sharply with the limited gains of British feminism" (42). Thus, ". . .the voluntary tattooing of tribal women in Burma designated a corpus of rights and privileges that was as yet unmatched in Britain" (42, emphasis in original).

As it turns out, Chisholm was acquitted, though questions about his role remained. To his colleagues, his real crime was a failure to control his native subordinates, an "abandonment of Britain's moral mission" (43). The event made the British police seem weak and incompetent. Meanwhile, tattoos became popular amongst high class British women. It was also adopted by the aristocracy; one possible reason was as a way to be associated with success in the colonies, a place that could save them from ruin. The article goes on to discuss this process and the fad leading to the 1920s. Overall, an interesting way to look at British history as well as gender studies and colonialism.

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