The African Face Painting Tradition

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Painting faces with different patterns and symbols has long been part of the tradition of many cultures, including the African nations. Face painting, which is usually complemented with body paint, is done according to tribal rites and cultural activities of specific African tribal groups.

This tradition also carries different purposes and meanings for different tribes such as hunting, specific events, rituals and tribal status.


Face and body painting carry a lot of symbolism to the Efik tribe. This ethnic group, which resides primarily in southeastern Nigeria, uses face painting to signify love and purity. During the old times in the tribe, the painting of faces was a way of expressing the tribe native’s own identity. Face painting also included patterns for identifying families and clans. In some cases, face painting also symbolises the happiness of giving birth to a child. For single women, a painted face is the equivalent of an initiation rite for the bearer to formally enter the society of women. For families, painted faces also indicate their happiness for some good news they have received. The native female dancers, called Abang, use face painting as way of expressing their beauty, love and complete femininity.


The Xhosa tribe obtains the paint they use on their face from an area called Hogsback. They call this place Qabimbola, which means red clay on the face. The purposes for these tribal people to paint their faces are varied. Some use it as a protection from the sunlight. The women put white paint on their faces as a mark for beauty. During the manhood initiation rite called Abakwetha, the young men have their faces painted first with white mud. After the circumcision ceremony, their faces will be covered with mud signifying their readiness for complete adult male responsibilities.


The Pondo tribe in Pondoland of the South African region celebrates the tradition called umgidi. This refers to the initiation of a young woman to become a diviner or priestess of the tribe. The final initiation day is marked by the woman appearing at her homestead naked to the waist with her face and torso painted with white clay embellished with idwabe leaves. The paint pattern created on her torso and face symbolises her link to her ancestors who are believed to be the reason for her illness and recovery. The women dance to express gratitude to her ancestors for restoring her health.


The Karo tribes located in Southern Omo Valley in Ethiopia are known to be masters of traditional body and face painting. They paint their faces and bodies as a valuable part of their dance feast and ceremonies such as for courtships. They use pulverised white chalk, black charcoal, yellow, ochre and red earth to create striking and elaborate painting patterns to emulate the plumage of the guinea fowl. These patterns are usually traced by just using their hands and fingers.


The Woodabe tribe, also called the Bororo tribe, is a group of pastoral nomads found in the eastern Niger. The tribe celebrates the Gerewol festival, a special venue that gives men the chance to meet and attract women in their tribe. During the celebration, competitions take place in the form of a beauty pageant where the women are the judges and the men are the candidates. The Woodabe men paint their faces yellow or red and their lips black during their annual dance ceremonies to increase beauty and appeal.