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Traditional African Face Painting Practices

For many nations and peoples, face painting over the centuries has become a means of expressing identity, communicating messages. It accompanies cultural and religious practices, was and sometimes still is an important addition to rituals, ceremonies and wars. Africa is a continent with deep and rooted cultural diversity and unique expression of national identities. Since so many nations live in multiple countries and the borders usually divide lands only and rarely represent a complete national majority within its limits, peoples of Africa have developed ways to unite nations and represent themselves through certain visual distinctions, with face painting being one of the most famous means.

Traditional African Face Painting Practices
Traditional African Face Painting Practices

Uses

Although tribal and traditional face painting takes many shapes and forms, in general it is used for similar purposes by most peoples of Africa. Most often they signify a purpose – hunting, celebrating, going to wars and similar. Interestingly, many tribes also use face paint to distinguish people of different social status, age group. During social gatherings, facial paint is used to distinguish boys from men and girls from women, men from women, and, most importantly, tribe members from the outsiders.

Materials and Color Significance

Most commonly, the face paint in traditional settings is made out of clay that has different components in them. The colours get enhanced using dried plants and flowers. Colours carry as much significance as the symbols drawn using them. Black, quite universally, is used to suggest powerfulness, signify death, evil and mystery, while grey paint is used to communicated messages relating to security, maturity and stability. Purple carries the meaning of luxury, high social status, royalty. Red is a very common color for face painting in the times of war as it represents danger and urgency, while blue, on the other hand, is loved in various local celebrations and ceremonies as a sign of peacefulness, calmness and affection.

Materials and Color Significance
Materials and Color Significance

Symbols and their significance

When it comes to symbols, the variety is so great that it would be quite impossible to name them all, however, some universalization is possible. Most tribes hold that the higher the social rank of a person, the more elaborate their facial decorations can get. And it is logical, since detailed work requires not only extensive amount of paint, but also a long time to execute and many hands to help with that. Thus, most people start with plain face coverage and gain symbols according to their achievements and their social class – warriors, caregivers, shamans, and other tribal roles. Universally, circles are associated with the flow of life, strength, shapes that resemble eyes usually represent divine powers, omnipresence of the universe, whereas stricter shapes such as squares can be associated with intelligence. Interestingly, facial tattoos and scarring are very common practices in Africa. Those are usually used to represent lifelong commitments, exceptional achievements, social statuses that a person cannot be striped from, or some sort of crime they have committed and have to bear the burden of for the rest of their lives.

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