“The Indigenous Human Canvas”
Exquisite tribal body painting flourishes deep inside the Omo Valley of southern Ethiopia, the magnificent African cradle of humanity. The fine art of indigenous body painting was perfected centuries ago by the ancient Suri and Mursi tribespeople of the region whose bodies become walking masterpieces of artistic display. They are agro-pastoralists. Their color palette derives from the land. They use natural pigments and sacred, pulverized minerals found in this volcanic region: white limestone, red ochre, copper green, luminous sulphuric yellow or drab ash grey. Their designs are accentuated with flowers, leaves, grasses, berries or seed pods and often with shells, butterfly wings, animal skins or horns or teeth or tails plus the odd modern accoutrement—glass beads, bottle caps or bullet casings.
In the past there were no mirrors. Even today the villagers take turns painting each others bodies with seemingly spontaneous outbursts of wild design fantasy using circles and lines and dots and amorphous patterns at whim’s delight yet with measured control and restraint. Their artistic strokes are ruled by an innate grasp of organic form and shape and balance executed with a freedom that reveals intrinsic creative skills inspired by rituals and gods and each other. Even young kids possess such talent.
Tribal Body Painting Nudity
There is no inhibition. Nudity is natural. They paint faces and arms and legs, buttocks and breasts and genitalia. All is a canvas to explore artistic design. It’s a glorious display of zest for life, an expression of joy and pride. Of course, slathering ones body with clay pigments has a practical implication—sunburn is minimized. And limestone functions as a natural insecticide preventing bug bites on an otherwise nakedly exposed torso. But more importantly these tribes use their designs and colors to designate social position, to ward off illness, for ritual, for courtship, to associate oneself with family or tribe or an animal . . . and more recently to attract tourists with big cameras and big tips . . . but facial expressions in photos seem to indicate wariness of a culture at great risk by such blatant intrusion.
See more than a hundred incredible photographs by Hans Sylvester.
Youngsters are painted white with clay to ward off supernatural evil forces. Decorative scarification is common for teens and young adults to augment beauty while also functioning as a visual display of bravery in having endured much pain. Blood and torturous ordeal prepares youth for inevitable battles with warring tribes. Design serves function.
Most tribes of the Omo Valley do not practice a specific religion but they do profess living life in harmony with nature and with the spirit world. They regard illness as a separate bodily process stemming from a fundamental disturbance in the harmonious relationship between people and their social or natural environments.
Why is it “modern” Western societies have difficulty grasping easily discerned truths?