Their faces marked with intricate tattoos, an older generation of Chin women embody a dying art of ritual in one of the country’s most isolated and persecuted states. Photographer Brent Lewin captures their story
Facial tattoos are the cultural signature of a dying breed of Chin women, whose inked faces speak boldly of ethnic traditions and concepts of strength and beauty in western Myanmar.
A rite of passage for generations, facial tattooing distinguishes tribal allegiance and the use of animal symbols represents a strong bond with nature. However, many women were forced to put down their needles in the 1960s, when the custom was officially banned. Spurred on by globalisation, a belief shift from animism to Christianity and lifestyle changes, younger women in Chin State have embraced a different ideal of beauty, one that frowns on the ‘ugly’ traditional facial markings. Since then, the faces of these older women have weathered and the ritual has faded into near oblivion.
Hidden behind mountains, the sparsely populated state of 1.5 million is home to dozens of Chin subgroups that identify strongly with their environment. Self described as Zo-mi, or mountain people, it is not only geography that has dictated their separation from the rest of the country; the government has long restricted foreign access to the state.
Living in villages that straddle ridges and practicing slash and burn agriculture, these skilled hunters have long been considered one of the most persecuted groups in Myanmar. Seeking shelter in neighbouring India, Chin refugees have reported that they have been subject to torture, rape, arbitrary arrest, extra-judicial killings and pressure to assimilate to Burmese culture and a Buddhist way of life as part of a government policy to suppress Chin ethnic identity. Meanwhile forced relocations have prompted the gradual loss of the Chin’s language, customs and dress.
As a ceasefire signed earlier this year between Chin nationalists and the government is likely to open a closed world to outside forces, the indelible markings on these women’s faces may soon represent the last trace of a traditional way of life in the mountains of western Myanmar.
Brent Lewin is a Canadian photographer based in Bangkok. His work has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, The New York Times and Newsweek. Photo District News (PDN) also selected Lewin as one of the PDN 30 photographers in 2010. More of his work can be viewed at brentlewin.com