The African Face-Painting Tradition

by Boze Herrington

Among certain tribes of sub-Saharan Africa, such as the Nuba, the Xhosa and the Maasai, face-painting and bodily decoration serve an important aesthetic function. Yet they also function as social markers, distinguishing boys from men, men from older men, men from women and members of the tribe from outsiders. Face painting indicates status. Those who are deemed the most beautiful receive recognition, and, in some cases, romantic attention.

Nuban Face Painting

Although, historically, the Nuban people lived in an enclosed mountainous region in central Sudan, the United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that 245,000 refugees fled the region when war broke out in 2011. According to the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford, Nuban face painting indicates a person’s age group. Pre-adolescent boys decorate their faces in red and white; black is not permitted until they reach maturity at adolescence. Wearing the wrong color at the wrong age is considered an act of presumption, potentially meriting punishment, because it violates clearly established social divisions.

Face Painting in South Africa

According to anthropologist Margo Demello, the Xhosa tribe of South Africa uses 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 it establishes a mystical connection between them and their ancestors.

Maasai Face Painting

According to a national census held in 2009, in Kenya, the Maasai tribe numbers about 840,000 people. According to cultural anthropologist and academic Ken Firestone, 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

Also known as the Bororo tribe, the Wodaabe are known for their elaborate beauty pageants in which heavily decorated men compete for the attention of women. According to journalist Megan Lane of BBC News, 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.

About the Author

Boze Herrington is a writer and blogger who lives in Kansas City, Mo. His work has been featured in Cracked and "The Atlantic."

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