Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Cosmetics and Culture: The Cultural Significance of Body Painting

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Cosmetics and Culture: The Cultural Significance of Body Painting

Article excerpt

Body painting and scarification are, like jewelry and costume, ways of covering, disguising and transforming the body. But although the aim is almost without exception to beautify the body, aesthetic considerations are usually ancillary to social, religious or political preoccupations. However different the motives of the societies that engage in these practices, the common denominator is an attempt to dissociate the human body from its purely biological condition and endow it with a cultural dimension.

Body painting lies somewhere between scarification, which leaves lasting marks, and accessories that can be put on, taken off and replaced at a moment's notice. Unlike jewelry or clothing, it alters the appearance of the skin; unlike the effects of scarification, the alteration is only superficial and temporary.

At one end of the spectrum between permanent and temporary markings are the scarifications made by the Bobode of Mali and Burkina Faso on the heads of babies when they are a few days old. The scarifications are etched on to the still malleable skull tissue as well as the skin and last until the subjects die, enabling the corpse to be identified by the dead person's ancestors. At the other end of the spectrum is the ritual during which married women of the Mfumte-Wuli people of western Cameroon wrap the red leaves of an ornamental plant around their hips once a year, on the day when a great annual feast is held to celebrate the marriages that have taken place during the year.

Some body paint can last for a very long time. When the Mfumte-Wuli rub their skin with the leaves of a plant they call mabiyeru, they obtain a black pigmentation that lasts for two years. Penetrating deep into the subcutaneous tissue, this technique bears some resemblance to tattooing, although unlike tattooing it is not permanent. Among the young women and children it is replacing scarification, which has fallen into disuse.

At the great annual feast marking the transition from the maize season to the sorghum season, the Mfumte-Wuli decorate their bodies with a black pigment made from the juice of a local fruit mixed with ash. It lasts for several days, sometimes even several weeks, like the henna used in North Africa. …

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