Across the continent of Africa, the skin was, and still is, regarded as a blank canvas to be decorated in a variety of different ways. Body painting was traditionally used in many societies to signify a person’s social status and religious beliefs. A temporary decoration, body paint lasted only a few days. In some cultures both men and women painted their bodies only for important social occasions, while in other cultures people wore body paint every day as a uniform to show their social status.
Body paints were traditionally made from readily available ingredients. Clay, minerals, and plants were common sources of pigment or color. The intense colors offered by commercial paints, which became available in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, prompted many cultures to prefer industrial paints over traditionally made paints. Similarly, the oil used as a base for body paint was once made from animals or plants, but now much of the oil is commercially made.
The colors and designs used in body painting were chosen according to strict social and religious guidelines. White was often applied to both boys and girls for rituals that initiated them into society. A young man living in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, for example, was allowed to paint himself with red and white paint from age eight, but he had to wait until he was a bit older to wear yellow, and he could not use black until he was initiated into the group. Young women of the Nuba Mountains coated their bodies with oil and red ocher, a reddish type of clay, between puberty and their first pregnancy. Ethiopians also used specific types of body painting to celebrate each stage of life, from childhood to old age. The meanings associated with colors and patterns differed from culture to culture. Red, for example, represented blood in many cultures, but blood could symbolize life and happiness in some tribes, or death and sadness in others.
Africans have painted their bodies for thousands of years, and many societies continue to practice traditional body painting. Some African groups, however, have abandoned body painting altogether or discarded the traditional meanings of their body painting rituals and turned the practice into an activity done purely to attract tourists.