Many of today's body arts have their roots in African tribal body art. From scarification to body paints, body decoration has long been held in high regard in many African tribes.
Types of African Body Art
In many tribes, little clothing was worn as the body was seen as a canvas for decoration. Body decoration and transformation occurred at set times in a person's life and the decoration was thought to enhance a person's status and beauty.
While beadwork and jewelry were also frequently used as a means of beautification, there are a few types of body art that dominate.
Tribal scarification is the art of scarring the skin in decorative patterns. Scars can be packed with inks or dyes to form rudimentary tattoos, packed with dirt to form large, raised keloids or left in thin, delicate swirls.
White and red ochre body paint is used to decorate the face and body for many reasons. Oil, clay, chalk and plant dyes are used to form decorative patterns significant to a person's place in life. In some tribes, body painting is used more like clothes, to form a daily "outfit" worn for a short period of time.
Colored mud may be used in lieu of body paint to decorate not only the body but also the hair. Hair may be covered in a thick layer of colored mud before special events in a man's life.
The shaving of the hairline until smooth before covering the rest of the hair in colored mud may be undertaken by some men entering puberty.
Piercing of the lip, ears or nose is a common form of African tribal body art. The piercing may be adorned with bone, ivory plugs, bronze or other metal jewelry as well as shells and fish vertebrae. The more rare a type of jewelry was, the more it was prized, being used for trade or even money in some cases. Wearing this jewelry in the body can be a sign of wealth or status.
Reasons for African Tribal Body Art
Depending on the tribe, there can be several reasons why body art may be undertaken.
- Upon entering puberty
- Upon marriage
- To commemorate an event
- To show social status
- For daily decoration
- During celebration
- During courting or dating
- For weddings
- For childbirth
- As an indication of age
Influence of African Body Art Today
Many traditions and types of beautification and body decoration we practice today can be traced back to African tribal roots. Body painting, face painting, henna tattoos, scarification and body piercings can all be traced to African body art.
What is most interesting is the fact that as many tribes begin to leave behind the practice of body decoration, these body arts are beginning to grow in popularity in the Western world. While scarification was once widespread through many African tribes, it can now be found only in pockets. Scarification as a form of body alteration in the United States and is beginning to gain momentum as an alternative to tattooing.
Body painting and face painting have long become a more mainstream type of decoration for events such as children's parties in the west while the practice continues to dwindle amongst tribes in Africa. While the types of pigment, body jewelry and application methods vary widely between the two cultures, there is no denying the fact that this history has changed hands.
Evidence of African body art has been found dating back thousands of years. This rich and decorative practice and culture continues to dominate tribes in all areas of the continent while it makes its way west. Give some thought to African body art the next time you engage in body decoration and consider the history of this artful practice!