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Things Everyone Needs To Know About the African Tribal Body & Face Painting

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Body painting is a colorful art used by various African cultures to celebrate, protect, and mourn. Traditionally, the paint is gotten from natural ingredients and smoothed on the skin with fingers, sticks, or grasses.

Things Everyone Needs To Know About the African Tribal Body & Face Painting

African Tribal Body & Face Painting, Significance and Usage

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Ingredients | Uses | Significance of African Face Paintings

Tribal makeup plays an important role in the various groups. The makeup, often consisting of face paint, is used for many different reasons and can signify many different things such as religious, recreational and traditional reasons and also military purposes.

Traditionally, Oil, clay, and chalk are the most common paint ingredients, but the Dinka of southern Sudan have in the past used ash, cattle dung, and urine to make their face paint.

Specific colors are used to indicate certain periods in a person’s life, such as puberty, courting, and marriage, among other things.

It also functions as social marker, distinguishes boys from men, men from older men or outsiders from members of the tribe. In this context, we can mention that the various patterns and paints of the over 3000 African tribes are really different.

African Tribal face paint

Futhermore, face paint is made out of clay in different colours. Each colour and each symbol has a certain meaning.

Black is used to display power, evil, death and mystery, while grey indicates security, authority and stability. Purple commonly means royalty and luxury while yellow is used for joy, energy and warmth, Red stands for danger and blue denotes peace, calmness and confidence.

It is also interesting to mention that tribal art differs depending on a person’s rank in society. The higher your rank is, the more elaborate and complicated your face paint will be.

Face Painting in South Africa

Face painting, or umchokozo, plays a big role in Xhosa culture, and women decorate their faces with white or yellow ochre, and use dots to make patterns on their faces. The decorations are sometimes painted over their eyebrows, the bridge of their noses, and cheeks.

Xhosa face painting
xhosa face painting: Pinterest

The Xhosa tribe of South Africa also use face paint as a rite of passage. Boys entering adolescence undergo a ritual in which they’re separated from the rest of their tribe and embrace the mentorship of an older man. Once the ritual is over, they’re painted red. Among the Pondo people of South Africa, spiritual leaders paint their faces and bodies white because this establishes a mystical connection between them and their ancestors.

Maasai Face Painting

Face Painting in Africa
Young Maasai, not yet warrior, in traditional face paint. Serengeti area, Tanzania – Photo: Marco Boria

According to a national census held in 2009, in Kenya, the Maasai tribe numbers about 840,000 people. The Masaai decorate their bodies with beads and jewelry, and wear plugs that greatly enlarge their earlobes. Toya, a former Maasai warrior interviewed by filmmaker Ton van der Lee, reports that young men who are undergoing the ritual of initiation into manhood fashion headdresses made out of lions’ manes or bird feathers. During the initiation, women shave off the men’s hair and paint their heads with red paint.

Wodaabe Face Painting

African Tribal Body Painting

The Wodaabe’s are known for their elaborate beauty pageants in which heavily decorated men compete for the attention of women. Men paint their noses with white clay and line their eyes with black eyeliner made out of egret bones. They adorn their faces with swirling symmetrical patterns of red, yellow, black and white. The winners of these contests become heroes of their tribes, are remembered for generations, and have the option of choosing brides for themselves.

Karo People of Ethiopia

African Tribal Body & Face Painting, Significance and Usage
Decorating with nature is significant for the Karo Tribe – Photo: Mario Gerth

The Karo people differentiate themselves from many of the neighbouring tribes by excelling specifically in body and face painting. They paint themselves daily with coloured ochre, white chalk, yellow mineral rock, charcoal, and pulverized iron ore, all natural resources local to the area. What’s more, it’s not just the women who use this technique in a bid to be more visually appealing to the opposite sex. The men also paint their faces and bodies to boost their sex appeal.

Nuba People of Sudan

African Face Painting, Significance and Usage
A Nuba Man Of North Sudan – Nairaland

The Nuba males in Sudan are painted and decorated all over their body between 17 and 30 years of age to indicate their life stage.

Witch Doctors

African Tribal Body & Face Painting, Significance and Usage

Witch doctors in Africa paint their face and arms in mostly white colors in a bid to see and communicate with the spirit.

Berber women in Northern Africa

Face Painting, Significance and Usage

Berber women in Northern Africa paint their hands and feet with intricate henna designs called siyala for their weddings. (Henna is a reddish powder or paste made from the dried leaves of the henna bush).

In Algeria’s Aurès mountains, it used to be a tradition for Berber women to tattoo their bodies and faces. The shapes and symbols they used were both of cosmetic and therapeutic value, as the Berber community in eastern Algeria believed that tattoos could be used to heal illnesses and infertility.

African Tribal Body & Face Painting

African Tribal Body & Face Painting

African Tribal Body & Face Painting

African Tribal Body Painting

African Tribal Face Painting

The Faces of Ethiopia’s Karo People

The Karo tribe living along the borders of the Lower Omo River incorporate rich, cultural symbolism into their rituals by using ornate body art, intricate headdresses, and body scarification to express beauty and significance within their community. This lively tribe of around 2000 people is the main sedentary agriculturalist group in the Lower Omo Valley area of southern Ethiopia.

Many of their traditional rituals might have originated with another much larger tribe: the Hamar, which is of the same lineage but numbers approximately 30,000. These two groups speak nearly identical, Omotic languages and much of the symbolism found in both groups’ ceremonies suggest a rich, cultural history together.

The Karo people differentiate themselves from many of the neighbouring tribes by excelling specifically in body and face painting. They paint themselves daily with coloured ochre, white chalk, yellow mineral rock, charcoal, and pulverized iron ore, all natural resources local to the area.

The specific designs drawn on their bodies can change daily and vary in content, ranging from simple stars or lines to animal motifs, such as guinea fowl plumage, or to the most popular – a myriad of handprints covering the torso and legs. Both the Karo and the Hamar men use clay to construct elaborate hairstyles and headdresses for themselves, signifying status, beauty, and bravery.

The Karo male hairstyle is very elaborate. A part is made from one ear to the other. The front portion is made into braids, which frame the forehead. The rest of the hair is drawn back into a thick chignon and held firmly by a colorful cap of glazed earth. Sometimes pieces of bark are glued onto the cap and holes are made in the bark to attach ostrich feathers. Or, it is painted in red, white and black – three colors of mystical and legendary significance.

A man wearing a grey and red-ochre clay hair bun with an Ostrich feather indicates that he has bravely killed an enemy from another tribe or a dangerous animal, such as a lion or a leopard. This clay hair bun often takes up to three days to construct. It is usually remade every three to six months, and can be worn for a period of up to one year after the kill.

Large beads worn around the neck of a man also signify a big game kill. The Karo men cover their body and face with ashes mixed with fat, a symbol of virility for important festivities and the ritual combats between the clans, which take place after the harvest. (Cinders also protect them from mosquitoes and tsetse fly). These ceremonial combats are of great importance because they enable the men to exhibit their beauty and courage and thus, perhaps to attract a woman. The scars and lacerations, particularly those on the chest, are highly esteemed marks of valor.

Karo women usually wear only a skin loincloth, decorated with beads and cowries. Their hair is greased with red clay and cut into a short skullcap.The Karo’s artistic practices in their daily lives are for self-pleasure and pride, respect and symbolic recognition within their society, and as a means of attracting the opposite sex during rituals. Courtship dances are frequently held and oftentimes the outcome of these frenzied, impassioned dances result in future marriages.

Specific rituals occur regularly within the tribal communities, and sometimes neighbouring villagers will travel all night to witness these rites of passages and participate in the celebrations. Body scarification conveys either significant symbolism or aesthetic beauty, depending upon the sex of the individual.

The scarification of the man’s chest indicates that he has killed enemies from other tribes, and he is highly respected within his community. Each line on his chest represents one killing, and complete chest scarification is not rare. The Karo women are considered particularly sensual and attractive if cuts are made deep into their chests and torsos and ash is rubbed in, creating a raised effect over time and thereby enhancing sexual beauty.

The Karo, like the Hamar, perform the Bula or Pilla initiation rite, which signifies the coming of age for young men. The initiate must demonstrate that he is ready to “become a man” by leaping over rows of cattle six times consecutively without falling. If successful, the boy will become eligible for marriage (as long as his older brothers are already married) and he will be allowed to appear publicly with the elders in sacred areas.

In recent times however the modern world has begun t o creep into their existence. Plastic water containers, odd T-shirr and the automatic weapon. The end of the Mengistu reign in the 1990s and ongoing conflict in Sudan and Somalia have ensured a flood of AK-47′s, Kalashnikovs and G-3 rifles into the region. Guns are used to protect cattle, to hunt and to settle disputes.

All photographs by Einat Klein: einatklein.com

Uzonna Anele
Anele is a web developer and a Pan-Africanist who believes bad leadership is the only thing keeping Africa from taking its rightful place in the modern world.

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