Visitors to the various regions within the African continent are frequently surprised by the lack of clothing worn by traditional or rural people. Despite few cloth coverings, though, the locals are draped in jewellery and decorations. Indeed, using the body as a canvas for a particular type of art has long been a tradition amongst many of the world’s earliest inhabitants. The African tribes have five main ways of beautifying or decorating their bodies. These are:
2. Body painting
Scarification involves cutting, burning or whipping the body to create permanent scars. These are frequently inflicted in specific shapes and sizes, and indicate something about their host. For example, the pubescent girls of the Nigerian tribe Ga’anda are scarred with delicate designs on their stomachs, backs and shoulders to indicate that they are entering womanhood. The Sudanese tribe of Shilluk uses scarred dots across the forehead to convey details about that person’s heritage.
Body painting is a common method, and is used in religious rituals, celebrations and to indicate sexual maturity. The colours frequently represent the tribe (as a sports jersey would indicate what team the spectator supports), or can be used to convey a specific message about that person. Oil, clay, chalk, ash and plant products (fruit, sap etc…) are traditionally used to create different colours and textures. 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, while other tribes only use the paints for worship or mourning.
Africans are famous for their use of colourful beads, both on their body and in their accessories, hair and clothing. Certain colours and patterns usually represent certain aspects of the wearer, such as gender, number of children, power, achievements and so on. When colonialists began to arrive in Africa, they brought with them exquisite glass beads, which the Africans held in such high regard that they even traded human slaves for them. Apart from these, they also used ivory, fish bones and shells for beads.
Jewellery was made using leather, hair, grasses, beads, bones, shells and seeds. It came in the form of traditional necklaces, bracelets, ankle chains and rings, but also as headdresses, foot detail, and strings of decorations draped over the hair, back and stomach. When jewellery was made from a rare or valuable substance, like coral or certain types of woods and shells, they became more valuable to those wearing them.
Mutilation includes lip plugs, earlobe plugs, neck rings and similar methods of changing the body structure and appearance. These take years to effect, and become the identity of the tribes making use of them. They often result in a bizarre physical feature, such as bottom lips that have a disk the size of a dinner plate in the soft tissue, or elongated necks that have been stretched by gradually increasing the number of copper rings around them.
Art is a fascinating way of identifying a group of people, or of expressing personal ideas and preferences. The African people have used it extensively to establish their own identities and cultures.
For more information, please view: African Body Modification