The Art of Adornment

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The Art of Adornment

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Body Designs. Perhaps one of the greatest African art forms is the adornment of the human body. Among many West African groups intricately designed jewelry, elaborate hairstyles, body decoration, and elegant attire combine to make human beings, especially women, living works of art. Representing individual, familial, and cultural concepts of beauty, many of these adornments have roots in the 500-1590 period of West African history.

Body Decoration. For centuries West Africans have turned the human body into living art through tattoos, decorative pigments, and scarification (a process whereby incisions are made in the skin to create patterns). While it is difficult to pinpoint the origins of these forms of body designing, the survival of masks and scriptures that depict such decorations has helped scholars to determine that they date back to antiquity. Permanent body designing such as tattoos and scarification occurs at different intervals in an individual’s life and contributes to his or her identification with a particular society, status, or role. In some cultures, tattooing is as much narrative as symbolism. Stories of courtship and marriage may be told through tattoos on women’s bodies. Among Yoruba, Bambara, and Akan women, tattooing also communicates and enhances their place and value in their societies. Intricate designs painted with henna, indigo, and other dyes beautify and tell the stories of their wearers. Igbo women used a variety of natural dyes called uli to paint abstract and representational designs (also called uli) on each other’s bodies as well as on the walls of houses. Yoruba women often used henna and other plant-derived dyes to tell personal and familial stories through designs on their hands, legs, and arms.

Scarification. Scarification also did more than enhance physical appearance. According to George Landow, it was believed to provide spiritual protection and to place an individual physically within a region or belief system. For example, the style of scarification on a thirteenth- or fourteenth-century Yoruba head conveys the balance, demeanor, and poise that characterize iwapele (good character) in Yoruba aesthetics and personal behavior. In fact, as Landow has explained, body designing is a sign of civilization: “Scarification, tattooing, and body piercing therefore parallel the characteristic African aesthetic emphasis upon composure, balance, and calm in an important way, for both represent ways of separating the human from the less-than-human—the animal, the natural.” Catherine Cartwright Jones points out that “interlocking knotwork patterns are often used as metaphors for the Yoruba concept of the world as two distinct yet inseparable realms, Aye and Orun. Aye is the

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world of the living, Orun is the world of spirits and the afterlife.” Thus, this style may be interpreted as a representation of the Yoruba saying that may be translated as “this world is a marketplace we visit, the other world is our home.”

Hairstyles. Since antiquity, intricately patterned hairstyles have played an important role in the artistic, cultural, and social lives of African women and men. From the exaggerated emphasis placed on the head in ancient African sculpted, brass, and terra-cotta figures, scholars have deduced that the head and the hair carried deeply philosophical and spiritual meanings as well as indications of social status or role, identity, or age. So significant is the notion of hair and hairstyling in Yoruba cosmology that hair combs represent the relationship between personal destiny and personal presentation. Even today, African hairstyling carries more than aesthetic meaning, particularly for those who exercise leadership and authority in spiritual matters.

Sources

Rowland Abiodun, Henry J. Drewal, and John Pemberton III, eds., The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives onAfrican Arts (Washington & London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994).

Margaret Courtney-Clarke, African Canvas: The Art of West African Women (New York: Rizzoli, 1990).

David Hughes, Afrocentric Architecture:A Design Primer (Columbus, Ohio: Greyden Press, 1994).

Catherine Cartwright Jones, Traditional Yoruba Patterns <http://reverndbunny.sphosting.com/yoruba.htm>.

George Landow, “Civilizing Scars” <http://www.scholars.nus.edu.sg/post/afnca/scar.html>.

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The Art of Adornment