The belly-button, or just 'navel' (lat. Umbilicus, gr. Omphalus), is this
infinitely variable, little overlapping piece of skin that is situated
virtually in the middle of our bodies. It doesn't have any function but
reminds us that our life started as a parasitic growth, when the fertilized
egg nested itself in a womb that has been ready to accept it.
There in the womb, in the first few days of its development, the fertilized
egg is limited to nutrition that comes from the egg-yolk, before being
replaced with blood circulation from the placenta. The embryo or fetus is
now connected to the placenta and with the bloodstream of the woman through
the umbilical cord (lat. Funiculus umbilicalis).
Everything that the embryo needs for its development such as nutrition and
oxygen is funneled through the umbilical cord, which is also used to expel
all of its waste products. This is a very fascinating and highly complex
story, where the mother's body is seen as a fully equipped comfort station,
simultaneously kitchen and rubbish tip. All of us have exhaled CO2 through
our mother's lungs and secreted through her kidneys.
The human umbilical cord is about 50-60 cm long, usually spirally grown and
These facts connect humans with all mammals, except for the platypus
(Ornithorhynchus anatinus), that is native to Tasmania and the eastern coast
of Australia and seems to be an evolutionary freak.
The platypus lays eggs, despite being a mammal! It is also belongs to the
marsupial order, although its secretion and sex organs are not divided.
Platypuses mate in the water, where the male inserts his penis in the pouch
of the female. About 12-14 days later, the female usually lays 3 white eggs,
whose parchment skin evokes reptiles, more than birds.
The female hatches eggs for about 10 days and then the youngsters pop out.
They are completely hairless and their eyes are closed. Their length hardly
exceeds 25 mm! These little ones lick milk from their mother's hair because
platypuses have no nipples or breasts and they virtually sweat milk.
Ironically, in the German language, there is a word navel (ger: NABEL)
hidden in the word Platypus (ger: SchNABELtier) although it has no navel or
umbilical cord (ger.: NABELschnur).
When our umbilical cord falls off after birth, the navel heals up like a
scar, in a range of visually very different forms. It can be a concave
'innie' or a convex, disk-like 'outie'. It can have evenly distributed
concentric faults on in the inside, or is unevenly closed. All of these
variations are the result of pure chance, although the genetically disposed
qualities of the stomach muscles, the care for the navel after the birth,
frequent strong screaming in the first days of life, long lasting
inflammations, poor hygiene or even the result of an navel rupture may also
play a role!
Each navel is individual and unique, like fingerprints. Despite this it
gives you no clue about the owner or their character!
They also remind us of the complicated role-play relationship between the
embryo/fetus and mother/spaceship.
A navel makes us think not only of birth, but also of death. Some babies are
in danger of being suffocated by their own umbilical cord that has nurtured
them for so long.
It wasn't only ancient cultures that knew of the ritual of burying the
detached umbilical cord. The umbilical cord represents life, yet reminds us,
that at any moment, this link can be ripped apart, bitten off or clamped and
separated with scissors with the best know how of modern medicine. If the
umbilical cord refers to the time of the separation, so does the navel.
If the navel is exposed it suggests gender and sexuality. In other words,
with bonding or intermingling. When you are able to touch someone else's
navel, the genitals are not far away!
In general, pubescent girls are proud of their belly-buttons and frequently
expose them, often decorated with piercing. Older people on the other hand,
treat their belly-buttons more as private parts of their body. Some find
them ugly and sometimes in pregnancy, it can pop out in a disturbing way for
a pregnant woman.
In Magritte's painting Le Viol (The Rape, 1934), the face is grotesquely
realigned. Breasts are in the place of eyes, genitalia replace the mouth.
Nearby the navel are placed little dots, like birthmarks to represent the
nose. Magritte's painting exists as a visual irritation, from which derives
an assumption that something is assumed to be something else, without being
ever truly what it is. It's actually not a portrait at all, although
Magritte strived for all important elements of portraiture.
By contrast, in Australia the living artist Saba Skaberne works on portraits
of belly-buttons and bellies. In her works, the navel truly replaces the
Skaberne, who has worked with different body parts such as ears before, sees
the navel as the centre of the human body. In her navel-portraits, she
executes portraits of people in the same manner as if she would have to deal
with faces. It is always about real, concrete people. These are portraits of
friends, acquaintances, relatives, (her mother amongst them), the young and
old, the fat and thin. With the belly-button portraits of pregnant women
there are corresponding bellybutton portraits of newly born babies and some
are done even post-mortem.
But Skaberne's own belly-button is missing. It has to be absent, because one
needs another person in order to see it. At this point Skaberne is breaking
with classic portraiture, where we're dealing with numerous faces of
In another way, she sticks to the best traditions of portraiture. It all
starts with the subject sitting before the artist, where sketches and
detailed drawings are made in pencil. Skaberne then models the forms in clay.
While the bridegroom in the Song of Solomon (7.3) admires the belly-button
of the bride and sees it as the round cup ("let's not lack mulled wine") we
are looking here at simple, dome like, disc-like clay forms as the solemn
information-bearers. Their look is rather serial, as if we're neglecting the
individuality of navels. The disks are giving the impression that they are
soft or made of a pliable material, something like silicon. In fact they are
made of terracotta, and are hard, without elasticity. After firing they are
sprayed with monochrome, metallic automotive paints. The choice of the color
is chosen intuitively, according to the portrayed person.
Portraits of Saba Skaberne have little to do with sexuality, but are rather
pointing to the fact that we all are thrown out into this world through the
narrow birth channel and our being is determined by the amount of trauma
that we experience when we are passing through.
A real exile form Paradise! But the fertilized bubble had to be broken, the
umbilical cord had to be ripped off in order that we became what we are! The
navel literally represents a particular joining device that we can thank for
our image. How different we would be, if we would be hatched from a
PS: If stem-cells would be provided from the blood of the umbilical cord
then this promises life even if the primal function has been lost.
Translated by Saba Skaberne and Gregory Pryor