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Body Art and Ornamentation Across Cultures

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Body Art and Ornamentation across Cultures
Sheryl Strickland
ANT 101
Dr. Cynthia Livingston
08/05/2013

Body Art and Ornamentation across Cultures
The skin has been a canvas for human expression for centuries. As a result, body art and ornamentation have been a source of interest among anthropologists beginning as early as the 1900’s, and gaining a strong foothold during the 1970’s. “Inscribed skin highlights an issue that has been central to anthropology since its inception: the question of boundaries between the individual and society, between societies, and between representations and experiences” (Schildkrout, 2004). Through anthropological research, we have learned that many cultures worldwide use forms of body art and ornamentation such as scarification, tattooing (permanent and nonpermanent), and piercings for a variety of reasons, ranging from ceremonial religious rituals to tribal identification purposes. The process of body art and ornamentation signifies a figurative death and rebirth that typically involves a painful experience as a means to encourage an individual’s self-discovery, as well as establishing his/her place in society. For the purpose of this paper, I will explore the various aspects of body art and ornamentation across three specific cultures- the Yoruba’s of West Africa, the Samoan’s of the Pacific Islands, and the Hindu’s of India.
Throughout the history of African culture, anthropologists have noted a wide variety of body markings among African peoples, with scarification being the most permanent form. Through intense study and research of African peoples, anthropologists have learned that many in the African culture use these types of body markings as identifiers among tribes, as well as a source of integration for outsiders into a specific community. For example, among the Yoruba tribes of West Africa, men, women and children were often subjected to scarification of the face in an effort to separate their culture from other cultures in Africa, as well as to denote hierarchy among its own people. This type of scarification serves as “a kind of insignia, a national badge, [or] uniform for all individuals of the same group and different from one people to another so as to give each one a distinctive characteristic” (Ojo, 2008). Starting shortly after birth, Yoruba infants are brought to see a specialist (an Olóólà or Akọmọlá) who, by using a scalpel, will carefully place one of a variety of desired facial stripes on the cheeks of the infant. In the Yoruba culture, parents may choose from three pattern types- a single vertical stripe on both cheeks, a three stripe pattern (vertical or horizontal) on both cheeks, or a four stripe horizontal pattern on each side (Orie, 2011). It is a customary practice that the patterns be symmetrical on each side, and never has it been seen a double stripe pattern. However, asymmetry does occur, but is typically reserved for the integration of royal or wealthy families through marriage.
In addition to using facial scarification as a tribal identifier, peoples of Yoruba culture will also use facial scarification as a form of protection from the spirit world for certain children deemed “mischievous.” In Yoruba culture the term “mischievous” differs from the traditionally accepted definition, as it is used to describe Yoruba children that pass on shortly after birth, or for the surviving child of a mother who has had a succession of failed pregnancies. The Yoruba’s believe that these children are being followed by an àbíkú, a spirit responsible for the death of infants by reclaiming them into the spirit world (2011). In an effort to thwart the spirits from carrying out their otherworldly duties, these Yoruba children will be marked with a single vertical or horizontal line on each cheek, or either multiple incisions placed throughout the body, other than on the face.
Moving on from the scarification practices of the Yoruba peoples, another culture using body art and ornamentation as a cultural identifier is the Samoan’s. Tattooing is the longest recorded and most traditional art form used by Samoan’s for cultural identification purposes. The art of the tatau (the Samoan word for tattoo) is speculated to have been founded by twin goddesses Taema and Tilafaiga around 1250 AD, and was usually reserved for the chiefs and their families (Va’a, 2006). However, as times passed, it became customary for all Samoan men to have these tribal tattoos, and serves as a symbol of the transition from boyhood to manhood. Samoan men that are tattooed rank higher in status than non-tattooed men. So much so that the Samoan’s have two distinct words to describe each- sogaimiti, meaning tattooed man, and apula u, meaning foul-tasting taro, for an non-tattooed man (Ryman, 2004).
Because tattooing for Samoan men is symbolic of the transition from boyhood to manhood, when a young man is ready he will seek permission from his parents to begin the process of his pe’a- the Samoan word for the male tattoo. The pe’a consists of a series of markings surrounding a representation of the flying fox, an indigenous species of bat found on the island of Samoa. The male tattoo begins at the knees and carries on to slightly above the waistline, in both the front and back of the individual, save for the skin surrounding the genitalia. The process of the pe’a is performed by a tufuga- a tattoo artist honored with respect similar to that of a chief. To be a true tufuga one has to be born with the blood of tufugas past (Miles, 2001). Various combs made of pig tusks and turtle shells are used to hammer an ink made of soot and water into the skin of the Samoan male, leaving behind the intricately designed markings of the tufuga. A traditional Samoan tattoo takes up to eight hours to complete, and is often very tedious for the one tattooing and painful for the tattoo recipient.
In Hindu culture, tattooing is also used widely, however, the method of tattooing used in India differs from that of Samoan peoples in that it is not permanent, nor does it serve as protection from the spiritual world, like the scarification process in Yoruba peoples. Hindu’s use a process of non-permanent tattooing called mehndi (henna), a mixture of henna leaves and botanical oils ground up and formed into a paste, to tattoo the hands of Hindu women. There is no clear consensus as to where mehndi originated, as centuries of cultural interaction and migration has made it hard to pinpoint, however this art form has been used for centuries in Hindu culture, primarily as part of the wedding process. Mehndi is a non-permanent way to tattoo women with many beautiful designs, and serves as a representation of love among Indian brides-to-be. It is thought that by applying mehndi to the hand of the bride-to-be, the love between the bride and her future groom will be strengthened. In the article Henna Tradition: A Symbol of Marital Bliss, it is stated that “the henna ceremony reflects the welfare and happiness a marriage provides” (Middle East News, 2001). Hindu women place a great significance on the mehndi process, and usually throw an elaborate party/ceremony before the wedding solely for this purpose. The application of mehndi during this ceremony allows older Hindu women to bestow blessings and wisdom upon Indian brides-to-be.
In addition to mehndi, nose-piercing is another form of body art and ornamentation with cultural value in Hindu culture. The purpose of nose piercing in Hindu culture varies from region to region. For example, in rural areas of India, certain castes use a septum piercing called the nathori in an effort to emulate the Hindu god Lord Krishna. For other castes within Hindu culture, elaborate pieces of jewelry are used to adorn the nostril of a Hindu bride-to-be during a wedding ceremony, and are worn thereafter as a signifier of marriage among other peoples. Furthermore, there are some castes in Hindu culture that use a left-sided nose-piercing called a mookkuthi, for medicinal purposes. The use of mookkuthi is derived from the ancient art of Ayurvedic medicine. Ayurvedic medicinal practices began when the Ayurveda (life knowledge) and it’s three doshas (vital forces working within the body) were revealed to the Hindu deity, Brahma (Carrier, 2011). It is believed in Ayurvedic medicine that piercing the nose of young Hindu women will result in easier menstruation and a less painful child-birthing experience.

Although each of the cultures mentioned in the above writing differ in the use of body art and ornamentation for self-expression, they all have a specific commonality- a lean toward modernization. With an increase in colonization throughout the lands of the aforementioned cultures many of the peoples in these cultures have long since disregarded the more painful aspects of body art and ornamentation and replaced it with less exotic ways of self-expression, such as clothing art and jewelry design. For example, in Nigeria, unmarked ex-slaves of the Yoruba diaspora began taking elite positions within the African government, thus making the traditional Yoruba facial scarification process a past-time (Ojo, 2004). Some Yoruba parents will still have their children’s faces scarified; however the design of choice, called a minus line, is more of a fashion statement than a method of cultural identification. Much of the traditional designs used in facial scarification can now be found in the artwork of the Yoruba peoples, with Yoruba women taken to inscribing their textiles and pottery with the once traditional Yoruba body art designs.
In addition to colonization, an influx of religious missionaries spreading the views of Christianity, have set about to change the way certain body art and ornamentation occurs within these cultures. When missionaries began visiting the Pacific Islands, they preached the Christian view that tattooing is of the devil. As a result many Pacific Islander’s began shying away from the traditional practices of tatau, choosing instead to use different forms of body paint as body art, and combinations of colored baby powder for ceremonial rituals (Schildkrout, 2004). Momentarily, these Christian ideologies stalled the practice of tribal tattooing in the island nation of Samoa; however it has begun to make a revival. Samoan tattooing has remained a sacred tradition, and is still practiced by proud Samoan’s. And, although there still remains the practice of the true tufuga, with the handmade tools and tedious application technique, many Samoan’s are leaning toward the more modern techniques of using tattoo guns, which achieve the same desired effect with much less pain and a faster completion time (Ryman, 2004).
Through westernization and modernization in India, Hindu culture has been directly affected. Although still used as a ceremonial religious ritual, mehndi is now evolving and can be seen worn among Indian women of all walks of life, regardless of marital status or significance. It is not uncommon to see young women sporting mehndi designs that serve as more of a fashion accessory rather than a ceremonial marking. Many of the designs are not limited to the lacy floral patterns historically used, but now include new wave forms of design, ranging from words to caricatures. Mehndi can be seen worn on not only the hands of young Hindu women, but on the face, arms, feet and legs. It is also being revered as a natural, safe, non-permanent way for women to color their hair. Furthermore, with the modernization of medicine in India, the once accepted Hindu method of Ayurvedic medicine is fading out, and along with it the reasons for nose piercings among Hindu women. Although many Hindu women still continue to pierce their noses, it is becoming an increasingly ambiguous practice, and seems to be more of a symbol of beauty than anything else. Body art and ornamentation across cultures has provided anthropologists with an interesting and telling insight into the histories and traditions of peoples throughout the world. Inscribing the skin provides peoples from all cultures with a way to convey an almost autobiographical story for anthropologists and outsiders alike. The role of body art and ornamentation in the cultures focused on in this paper hold various significances ranging from cultural identifiers, to tribal pride, to the celebration of love, etc. For example, by examining the facial scarifications of the Yoruba’s of West Africa, one can see a history of diaspora, where often times facial marks would be the only defining factor between slaves and warriors. Studying the meticulous and precisely placed designs of the traditional pe’a, we are able to learn the story of a young Samoan man’s transition from boyhood to manhood. Through the beautifully and delicately drawn out designs of mehndi, Hindu women are able to portray their acceptance of the newest stage of life (marriage), as well as show off the love they hold for their grooms. Regardless of an ever changing world- from colonization, to religious influences, to modernization- the traditions found among these cultures have been able to keep root and thrive, albeit slightly altered, continuing to tell the story of their people.

References
Henna tradition: A symbol of marital bliss. (2001, Sep 05). Middle East News Online. Retrieved July 20, 2013, from ProQuest database.
Carrier, M. (2011). Ayurvedic medicine. Skeptic, 16(2), 17-19. Retrieved August 5, 2013, from Academic Search Premier database.
Miles, P. (2001). Bodies to dye for. Geographical, 73(10), 32-36. Campion Interactive Publishing. Retrieved August 5, 2013, from MasterFILE Premier database.
Ojo, O. (2008). Beyond diversity: Women, scarification, and Yoruba identity. History in Africa 35(1), 347-374. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved July 20, 2013, from Project MUSE database.
Orie, I. (2011). The structure and function of Yoruba facial scarification. Anthropological Linguistics 53(1), 15-33. University of Nebraska Press. Retrieved July 27, 2013, from Project MUSE database.
Ryman, A. (2004). Peti’s malu: Traditions of Samoan tattooing. The World & I, 19(6), 160-167. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/235845406?accountid=32521
Schildkrout, E. (2004). Inscribing the body. Annual Review of Anthropology, 33, 319-344. Retrieved July 17, 2013 from ProQuest database.
Va’a, U.L.F. (2006). Five days with a master craftsman. Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture. Retrieved August 3, 2013, from Academic Search Premier database.

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