Beyond Tattoos: The Art of Body Adornment in Africa

February 3, 2013   •   By Suzanne Muchnic

Painted Bodies

Carol Beckwith

Image: Wodaabe Charm Dancer Preparing for the Geerewol, Niger © Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith, all rights reserved, from Painted Bodies: African Body Painting, Tattoos and Scarification (Rizzoli, 2012)


IN TERMS OF CONTEMPORARY ART, this big picture book is timely. Tattooed bodies and images of them, once associated with sleazy, back-alley “parlors,” have arrived in chic art galleries and venerable museums. How the lowbrow art form gained respectability is the theme of the December 2012 issue of ARTnews magazine. The cover trumpets “The Rise of the Tattoo Artist.” Inside, a feature story states: “Visual artists are not only dropping tattoo imagery and techniques into their art, but are also gaining mainstream exposure for it.”

The phenomenon may expand the audience for Painted Bodies: African Body Painting, Tattoos and Scarification. But Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher’s unabashedly spectacular color photographs have nothing to do with art world fashions and trends. The two photographers have been working as a team in Africa since 1978. In their latest book, they document modern versions of practices thought to have continued for tens of thousands of years.

Karo Courtship Dancers, Ethiopia © Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith, all rights reserved

“Our fascination with the art of body painting began 25 years ago in Ethiopia when we first visited the Surma during courtship season,” they write in the introduction:

We observed hundreds of Surma stick fighters slathering their bodies with a mixture of chalk and water and drawing elaborate designs in the wet paint with their fingertips. We were transported by this simple yet elegant and poetic act of transformation, and curious about the many ways it was practiced across the continent. [...] Using the skin as a canvas and the earth as a palette, body painting is performed not only for decoration, but also to convey important coded messages indicating availability, status, and position in society. The designs come from ancient sources, the paint comes from nature, and the colors are often associated with the ancestral world.

Pictures — intensely colored images that fill page after page with dramatically decorated faces and bodies — are the photographers’ primary achievement. Anyone who leafs through the pages of this book can see stunning evidence of ancient customs that seem to thrive, as well as survive. Karo people of southwest Ethiopia continue to beautify themselves with all the hues of the earth. Dinka pastoralists of South Sudan continue to dust themselves with ash. Wodaabe children of Niger still wear tattoos near their mouths and eyes to protect them from evil forces. 

But the photographs raise questions about how traditional practices fit into the enormously complex context of African society today. Readers, or viewers, are also likely to wonder how Beckwith and Fisher got access to their subjects and won their trust. Complete answers are not to be found in this book. That’s unfortunate, but captions of selected images and short texts at the beginning of each chapter help. The photographers offer bits of information about their travels and fascinating insights into the hows and whys of Africa’s painted bodies. 

Samburu Warrior with Ochered French Silk Roses, Kenya © Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith, all rights reserved

In the final chapter, “Painting for Seduction,” they describe an all-male beauty pageant in the south Sahara, which they witnessed and recorded at the end of a six-week trek. Wodaabe men spend hours applying colorful makeup and whitening their teeth before participating in a competition judged by women, Beckwith and Fisher write:

[The contestants] purse their lips, broaden their smiles, make clicking and kissing sounds to captivate their female audience, and roll their eyes enticingly. Wodaabe women say that seductions are made through the power of the eyes; if a man can hold one eye still and roll the other in and out, he is considered irresistible to women.

Winners of the contest are rewarded with admiration, ardor, and the satisfaction of personifying a legacy of ancestral beauty.

Strange as all this may be to inhabitants of the “developed” world, Beckwith and Fisher view the art of body painting as “a celebration — life-affirming, transforming, spontaneous, and a signature of being alive.” Their book makes it hard to argue with that.