BodySpectra, a one-night, body-painting and prosthetics extravaganza, will showcase this ancient art form in Cape Town this week.

Hosted by the art department at the School of Media and Creative Arts at CityVarsity, the title of this year’s 19th showcase — traditionally chosen by second-year students — is “spiritual beings”.

The original aim was to introduce body painting, make-up and prosthetics to the art department and give students a taste of a high-pressure, live event with an audience. Now it is a final exam and the high point of the students’ year. 

In the hours before the event starts, a sprawl of young bodies in various positions and stages of undress will be on a floor covered in plastic. The air will be sharp with the smell of raw alcohol and  hairspray. There will be an intermittent, sibilant hiss from an airbrush and the steady hum of its compressor.

Things will go wrong, models won’t arrive, tears will fall and moods will oscillate. After the show, the students will take a while to come down from a creative high to the numbing flatness and the irritation of sleep deprivation.

In less than 10 hours, the students will create a living piece of transient art. Their canvas is the human body; their tools are body paint, a brush and sponge, perhaps a stencil, possibly an airbrush. The challenge is not just to paint and use prosthetics effectively but to integrate their design with the shape of the human form. They also have to dazzle the audience and impress their lecturers sufficiently to pass them.

The students will be well versed in make-up application and will work with a broad range of materials, from diamante to chemical products such as resin and silicon. These skills can help them find employment in the film industry.

They can make a complete, sloughed human skin, as seen in Michelangelo’s St Bartholomew on the Sistine Chapel wall; make severed hands and limbs, accurate bullet wounds that bleed, or cut throats and burns.

They can age a Benjamin Button, create a monster by painting human flesh, or change the sex of an actor. They will also be able to make miniature sets for animation. They are the uncredited worker bees behind the smoke-and-mirror film industry.

Body painting is an ancient practice, a medium of expression among early humans. But it can also be used commercially. Australian artist Emma Hack is famous for her advertisement raising consciousness about speeding — she body-painted 17 men and women to create a smashed vehicle.

The annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue frequently features  models wearing body-painted swimsuits or sports jerseys. There’s a gallery in New Orleans dedicated to fine-art body painting.

Traditionally, body painting was used for a variety of purposes — some practical, such as sun protection, others more metaphysical. Xhosa men cover themselves with white clay to protect themselves from insects and germs, and as spiritual protection while undergoing ukwaluka, or initiation.

In Namibia, the Himba people coat themselves with red ochre pigment and butter fat for beauty and possibly sun protection. The nomadic Wodaabe men from the southern Sahara adorn themselves with wearable art to attract potential mates.

Body painting has always had a role in warfare. The fierce Celtic Picts tribe used woad — a blueish pigment — to frighten the Romans, and modern soldiers use paint to camouflage their faces.

It has also been used as protest art. Chinese artist Liu Bolin began body painting in protest against his government’s destruction of the Beijing artist village Suo Jia Cun in 2005.

BodySpectra is at Canvas Event Space, 17 Transvaal Street, Paarden Eiland in Cape Town on November 30 at 8pm. Contact 021 4666 800 for tickets.