Explorations of cultural identity through body art


“Art will remain the most astonishing activity of mankind born out of struggle between wisdom and madness, between dream and reality in our mind.” ~Magdalena Abakanowicz

My grandmother had tattoos. The only thing more striking than the indigo ink was perhaps the inscriptions that adorned both thighs. One of them was her full name, including her parents’ full names. The other was a quote in Yoruba which read: “Òle ń gbìyànjú ṣùgbọ́n apá òle òka”. Metaphorically translating as “your best effort is not enough, you need strength too”.  She had told me that the tattoos of her parents’ names, also inscribed on her sisters, were to help them find their way home if they ever got lost. In my understanding, ‘lost’ was literal.

Today, I can trace much of my fascination with traditional African body art to my early interest in and exposure to my grandmother’s tattoos.

It is her influence that also helped to give birth to Mãe Africa, for which the staging of ‘SCARRED’ is a first. The title ‘SCARRED’ with emphasis on the quotation marks is to underscore that the perception of body modification practice is subjective.

The presentation of this exhibit by Mãe Africa is no coincidence. Mãe Africa is a play on words, paying tribute to the Afro-Brazilian diaspora by using Mãe which means mother in Portuguese (pronounced ‘My’) to say, “Mother Africa”.  For many years and as a college student, I conducted independent research to find contemporary representations of African culture in the diaspora and had spent a brief period in Cuba circa 2004. Along the journey, I discovered Salvador de Bahia in Brazil and fell in love with Afro-Brazilian culture. It was in that period I came across the ‘Black Mother’ monument by Julio Guerra.

The “Mãe Preta” monument was sculpted in the 1950s and is placed in the Largo do Piaçandu neighbourhood of São Paulo. The black mother is a statue of an Afro Brazilian woman breastfeeding an infant child. As I later discovered, the sad, distant, sober look of the statue – which was received with mixed perspectives amongst Afro Brazilians – was deliberate. Mãe Preta (The Black Mother) Monument represents a distressing reality that was suffered by thousands of enslaved Afro-Brazilian women known as the “black mothers.” From the colonial era leading up until the very end of the 19th century, it was common for slave owners to request African women who had just given birth to serve as wet nurses and breastfeed the babies of the wealthy and middle classes. I read that the monument immortalises the profound sorrow of these women who were robbed of their freedom and required to neglect their children, highlighting the oppression that they endured and reinserting their place in history. I remember speaking to my friend afterwards and saying, I want to be Mãe Preta, but in a different way. Rather than being silenced by oppression and helplessness, I want to have a voice, and rather than forcefully serving as a wet nurse, I want to take care of my own (African) children.

The time in Cuba and my fascination with Afro Brazilians was such a period of cultural reawakening that Mãe Preta became the pseudonym for all my writing. It was also on my MSN messenger before the introduction of smartphones – it became my blackberry ID, and on most social profiles, it is still my preferred username.  While the Mãe Preta Monument sought to immortalise the history of the struggles, resistance and contributions of Afro-Brazilian women to the society, it inspired me to pay more attention to the history of the African women that raised me and document the wider history, magnificence and cultural heritage of the African continent.

Mãe Africa as ‘Mother Africa’ holds a very special meaning to me as the M.A.E also represents the initials of the three African mothers that raised me; my grandmother, my mother and my sister.

My grandmother, ‘Maami’ as my mom fondly called her, had been a young woman in the many shades of colonial Nigeria; serving as a warden in Her Majesty’s Prisons was a job that she combined with being a caterer, hairdresser and a seamstress on the weekends and some evenings. She participated in a parade to mark the amalgamation of Nigeria 1914 and she belonged to the category of those quarantined for visiting Lagos Island from the hinterlands. From the stories she told and my discoveries in later years as an African Studies scholar, her experiences in colonial Nigeria were a micro-representation of the larger African colonial experience – a combination of partial and selective inclusion alongside strong reminders of her mere existence being considered a threat. Her body art, which I now know to be the ‘Kolo’ style was a blend of traditional tattooing and scarification. The names on her thighs spoke to a communal expression of identity and the quote was intimately associated with her life experiences. In many ways, she was my closest and most tangible representation of a vintage Nigeria.

Body modification including body painting, scarifications, tattooing and body piercings are some of the oldest art forms across Africa. The depictions of body markings on rock art in Tassili n’Ajjer mountains of Algeria, textual records acknowledging the practice in ancient Nubia, intricate details of facial markings on culturally symbolic artistic works including the Bronze Head from Ife and the Nok Terracottas, and the discovery of body painting dating back to 100,000 years ago in the Blombos Cave of South Africa, all point to evidence that the skin has long been used as a canvas on the African continent.

Across thousands of ethnic groups, including the Omo River people of Ethiopia, the Legendary Masai, the Himba pastoralists of Namibia, Voodoo devotees in the Republic of Benin, the Igbo, Tiv, Efik, Yoruba, Idoma, Igala, Nupe and Kanuri – to mention a few from my home-country Nigeria, the skin has long been used to convey information about identity, affiliation, personal history, lineage, status and aesthetic choices.

While red ochre, white chalk, soot and other natural pigments have traditionally been used to adorn the skin, many mainstream records tracing the history of natural cosmetics largely exclude or do not prominently feature or acknowledge African cultures. The closest reference to the use of make-up by Africans in my research has been the mention of Queen Nefertiti or the use of kohl and henna, both often linked to the advent and presence of Middle Eastern cultures across the continent.

Of all of these cultural expressions, tribal markings have become increasingly unpopular. In many countries across the continent, the practice has been outlawed mainly due to the mandatory and non-consensual nature of it as well as its potential for spreading blood-borne diseases through the process. In many ways, there are modern replacements for some of its functional uses such as the identification role being replaced by modern identity cards; curative role replaced by conventional medicine; and new belief systems and beautification replaced by modern cosmetics. However, many Africans still bear tribal markings.

Living as involuntary representations of ancient cultural expression, body markings today are often a source of stigmatisation, ridicule, discrimination and exclusion, as the perception of tribal markings have been weathered by the colonial experience and modernity. Today, they are often associated with a barbaric, primitive and savage perception of indigenous cultural expressions.

Mãe Africa’s aim with ‘SCARRED’ is to revisit the origin and impact of these expressions and document its history, the values that inspired and informed them.

As symbolised through Mãe Africa’s logo where the tree represents the connectivity of all Africans to one root, the blocks of the separated tree trunk acknowledging the diversity in how we represent our common heritage and the branches representing the diaspora, ‘SCARRED’ aims to document the many ways that our connectivity runs deeper than skin colour.

In curating this exhibition, I strived to make a connection between collections that you find in museums and everyday lives being lived.

By seeing the Bétamarribé woman whose facial scarifications are reminiscent of the Ife terracotta unearthed in Nigeria in the 1930s, to the commonality of lip tattooing between the Wodaabe, the Kanuri and Kerma tribe in Sudan, to the similarities of markings between the Kanuri and Fulani for example, ‘SCARRED’ aims to show how culturally connected we are, in ways that we often overlook.

Perhaps, from attending the exhibition, there may be a reinforcement of the notion that African art is not confined to conventional art forms such as paintings and sculptures but also include some vanishing cultural expressions that have in the past enhanced the quality of people’s lives. It may also help to enlighten audiences on, and possibly correct, the mainstream narrative that tribal markings originated in the transatlantic slave trade era. More importantly, we aim to use it as a platform to highlight the importance of assent in body markings, the stigma and discrimination sometimes endured by those bearing these expressions and the many ways that the cultural expressions are being reinterpreted in contemporary art. Interestingly, some depictions on pottery and pipes from Afro-descendant communities in Brazil indicate some interpretations of body markings in material culture.

Body art as a theme for ‘SCARRED’ now holds a deeper meaning to me. In addition to honouring my grandmother’s memory through my first ever curated exhibition, the struggle to forge through the repeated and often last-minute disappointments in putting this project together helped me to recognise that the quote on her body was not simply body art; she had a guiding message for me. Like the elaborate tattoos on her thighs stated, making the best effort to actualise a dream is not enough – as I would come to find out in preparation for ‘SCARRED’, along with faith, I needed mental and financial strength too.

Naturally, being a SOAS alumna, I welcome the active participation of the student and alumni community. So, this weekend, you are all invited to the ‘SCARRED’ exhibition.

You can expect stunning visuals, stimulating discussions, spoken word performances, body painting, and many more. Please RSVP on Eventbrite: http://bit.ly/2Kcdk2j or our website: www.mae-africa.org

‘SCARRED’ previews on 29 November 2019, with an exhibition of over 30 photographs from five visual artists, Nadine Ibrahim, Trevor Cole, Eric Lafforgue, Hannah Longole and Anibal Bueno, and will be open to the public from 30 November to 1 December on the Unit 6 Gallery Space, 6A Langley Street, London, WC2H 9JA.  I look forward to seeing you there.

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