Ethiopia: The Art of Using Skin As a Canvas - Omo Valley Tribes

In an article entitled 'Human Canvas: The beautiful tribe peoples of Omo Valley use nature to decorate themselves' Ian Smith said that in the remote Omo Valley of southern Ethiopia, Africa, where some of the earliest homo sapiens remains were found, beautiful ancient tribes who are basically human canvases and moving art masterpieces, have been living there for centuries.

The Surma and Mursi people use the colors of nature, the texture of the animals as an inspiration and use pulverized minerals as materials for their body art. The Mursi have a long history and tradition of body art. Both men and women pierce their ears for discs. They use red ochre, yellow sulfur, white kaolin, white limestone and gray ash, which are common minerals in the area, he remarked.

True for the tribes residing in the Omo Valley, body art is the distinctive features of the communities which differentiate them from the other tribes. For those people, using natural materials such as soil, plants, charcoal, limestone grey ashes and similar decorative materials and creating intricate designs on their faces and bodies is an age-old culture of the communities. Both women and men create circle, spiral and cross-hatched designs in order to look more beautiful and visually appealing to their counterparts.

According to studies, the tribes use body art as a method of self-expression and a way of presenting the social hierarchical class in their tribe apart from appealing the eyes and hearts of their counterparts. They also do it to look more intimating to those from rival tribes in the region and as a means of enhancing their status.

The people use their bodies as canvases, elaborately decorating and painting their bodies and faces with spontaneous and beautifully designs and patterns. They also practice the methods scarification and piercings to further decorated and beautify themselves. Both men and women pierce their ears to form a disc like shape whilst exclusively, women used to traditionally pierce and stretch their lower lip in to a large plate shape, but that practice is fast fading.

However, while doing this, it is not done haphazardly to beautify themselves or merely to mark a tribal ritual. Rather, they do it with purpose - to depict specific messages. They use various colors, patterns and design to designate position within the tribal community, to prove their bravery in battle for having slayed the enemy or a dangerous wild animal that threatened their cattle in addition to on numerous occasions and rituals including bull jumping, stick fighting of suri and harvesting ceremonies. Depending on the designs and patterns, they decor their body to ward off illness, attract the opposite gender as well.

The communities believe that by embellishing themselves in detailed decorative body art; it gives people an idea about their life, beliefs, culture, plus the role they play in their tribe and their personality. One common ritual that the tribe performs is mothers painting their young children's faces in white ochre paint. This is believed to ward of supernatural entities associated with the tribe. For instance, the Mursi people cover their bodies in mineral and ochre designs, not only for spiritual means but also for practical reasons, as the ochre protects them from the harsh weather condition of the Omo Valley, like a traditional method of sun protection.

The designs also differ from event to event, as each design has a different meanings or reasoning and evokes different emotions and feelings.

Both males and females usually paint one another to ensure that each design and pattern is executed to perfection. It is not uncommon either for people to paint themselves depending on the part of the body that needs decorating.

Similarly to other tribes of the Omo Valley, men must pass a test before they are able to marry. In this specific ritual, they must decorate themselves in vibrant, rich, beautiful colors and designs to impress the young Mursi bachelorettes. Body painting is also a big part of the Mursi culture and is used in various tribal celebrations, for example; when the men adorn themselves in white ochre designs, to intimidate and command respect in the well-known Donga fight ritual. This ritual is a highly prestigious event at which the men demonstrate their strength and skills in fights with long sticks.

Herald September 2, 2020

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