Significance of Body Painting for Ethiopia's Omo Valley People

Two Omo Valley boys by Charles Meacham for National Geographic

People paint for many different reasons. Some wish to express their inner artistic beauty, some do it as a form of recreation and children simply enjoy immersing themselves in a project filled with colors and intricacies. For the Omo Valley tribal communities, painting is an activity undertaken for all these reasons and more, but there is a primary difference between their type of painting and that of most of the rest of the world.

Instead of using paper, cloth, or any other material as their canvas, tribes like the Surma and Mursi use Nature’s best canvas to display their talents – their bodies.

Significance of Body Painting

Of course, body painting is used as a means of expression but also, so much more. There are a variety of reasons why the Surma and Mursi people paint their bodies. Some of the common reasons are as follows:

Practical Purposes: Young boys are generally the first ones to paint their body with the indigenous clay because it protects them from sunburns. While they take the cattle out during the sunny peak hours, their painted bodies act as a means of practical protection.

Family Clay: Each family in these tribes believe that they are intrinsically connected with the land, Nature and a particular clay. When young men see the clay of their family, painting is undertaken simply because they know the clay and the clay knows them’.

Impressing the Ladies: The Surma and Mursi also use their bodies as a canvas to impress the opposite sex. Men, in particular, paint their bodies with mud, clay, and dung to impress the ladies with elaborate patterns that are intended to depict how virile and strong they are.

Warding off Evil and Diseases: The Omo Valley tribal communities have superstitions of their own. They believe the clay can help them ward off evil and it is not strange to see people with only the right side of their forehead covered with clay designs, put there to ward off the evil effects of bad dreams and nightmares. Similarly, clay designs, in particular – white clay, are used to ‘wash’ or ‘cleanse’ diseases. There is special clay ceremonies held to ensure that the Omo River is rid of diseases. Often, entire villages are anointed with paintings of black charcoal and red ochre to ward off epidemics like measles.

To Intimidate Enemies: During donga fights or when one wants to prove his superiority to the enemy, bodies are painted to display this assertive aggression.

Painting Techniques

The people of the Surma and Mursi tribes are generally tall, lithe in built and have very attractive and striking physiques. Add to this the fact that they have rich dark skin and it is easy to understand why their bodies make the perfect canvases. There are two primary painting techniques utilized by the Omo Valley tribal communities. After scraping chalk from the river banks, they mix it with water to create a white paste that is then applied to the body using ones hands. Each man is the canvas for another while women stick to painting each other’s bodies.

The first technique involves a type of white washing of the body with the white paste mixture. This is quickly followed by the use of fingertips to create elaborate designs in the wet paint. The contrast of the dark skin that is revealed by the path traced by the fingertips makes the final effect awe-inspiring. The designs mainly comprise of lines and swirls that are created with intense focus and in long fluid movements from start to finish.

Another method involves the use of things found in Nature as paintbrushes or to create special effects. These things could be reed sticks that are sliced or bitten to create a particular effect when they are dipped in opaque white clay and applied to the body. These designs are generally floral or star like.

Richness of Color

The people of the Omo Valley Tribes are nothing if not ingenious. From Nature, they pick and choose the best colors to suit their needs. Hans Silvester is a well-known photographer, explorer and author who written a few books on the people of the Omo Valley tribes in Ethiopia like ‘Ethiopia: People of the Omo Valley’, ‘A Window on Africa: Ethiopian Portraits’ and ‘Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa’. In his books, Silvester recounts the use of a variety of pigments and colors formed in the geological structure of the volcanic Rift valley which offers colors like ochre, red, yellow, pure white, darker shades of white, light grey and more. Only the color blue is not available naturally but the people of the Omo Valley use all the other colors in their natural surroundings to get the shades that they want. For example, green can be created with the use of a particular crumbly stone that is found on the river bed. This stone has to be sourced, crushed into a powder and then used.

As compared to the other people of Africa, native Ethiopians have a complexion that is redder and copper colored than black. Their skin reflects light incredibly well and the results are majestic body art canvases.

Team Activity and a Homage to Mother Earth

Body painting in the Surma and Mursi tribes of the Omo Valley are team activities that groups of men and women undertake, the primary reason for this is that the beautiful and intricate patterns need to be drawn with another person’s help in order to reach parts of the body that may be inaccessible. The eyes of friends and community members also act as mirrors in which they can see how they look.

Another pattern that can be found in the body painting of these people is a distinct and repetitive mimicry of nature and animals. Their dependence on Nature and the fact that Nature deeply inspires them can clearly be seen through their body art. Some men choose to color or design their faces to replicate that of animals like monkeys while others paint dangling tree roots all over the legs to create the illusion of mangroves that they see in Nature. In many ways, Silvester concurs that their body painting is simply an unconscious homage to Mother Earth.

GlamTribale’s Omo Valley Tribal Community Inspired Jewelry Collections

Our initiative is to create beautiful and sophisticated jewelry that is handcrafted in the U.S. and made out of 70 percent sustainable materials. The people of the Omo Valley are inspiring in their indigenous customs and traditions like body painting and GlamTribale’s efforts to emulate these designs have resulted in the creation of a collection that is beautiful, unique, colorful, and awe-inspiring. Created along the same fluid lines of Omo Valley body painting, GlamTribale’s collection also takes inspiration from Nature and the people of the Surma and Mursi tribes. These jewelry collections celebrate the extraordinary natural artistry and ingenuity of the Omo valley people of Ethiopia by recreating their artistic impulses in the form of earrings, elaborate, colorful and layered necklaces and much more.

For the women of today, being different and unique is not just a desire, it is a need that arises from within their souls. GlamTribale’s Omo Valley tribe inspired jewelry collections cater to this driving need through the elevation of a GlamTribale woman above anyone else by celebrating her inner beauty and uniqueness in each piece of Nature inspired jewelry.

I know that Anne's first designs inspired by the Omo Valley people were a huge hit at last week's Chestnut Hill Home & Garden Show, where she sold 10 of the 20 pieces presented. We will soon bring these designs to the GlamTribale website.

Comments on this post

juan medina says...

Interesante articulo sobre la cultura de estas tribu y sus costumbres
y forma de vivir ,

Posted on January 22, 2014

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