The Suri tribe live in remote parts of southwestern Ethiopia and Sudan and decorate their bodies in a variety of colourful ways(Image: Mario Gerth/HotSpot Media)

Whats behind the Tribal makeup?

Africa is a continent rich in different cultures, traditions, languages and perceptions of beauty. With many different tribes across the continent, beauty trends and ideals vary but are similar in significance amongst many tribes.

Tribal make-up plays a key role in many of the various groups. The make-up, often in the form of face paint, is used for many different reasons and can signify many different things such as hunting, religious and traditional reasons, military purposes or to scare an enemy. It also functions as social markers, distinguishing boys from men, men from older men, men from women and members of the tribe from outsiders. Face painting indicates status and they convey a strong cultural meaning.

The Suri tribe live in remote parts of southwestern Ethiopia and Sudan and decorate their bodies in a variety of colourful ways(Image: Mario Gerth/HotSpot Media)

Africa has an estimated total of 3000 tribes, all of which vary incredibly in terms of language, culture and traditions.

Face paint is usually made out of clay with different hues using dried plants and flowers. Each color and each symbol has a certain meaning.

Black is usually used to denote power, evil, death, and mystery while grey is commonly used to mean security, authority, maturity and stability. Purple commonly means royalty, luxury, wisdom, and passion and yellow is used for joy, energy and warmth. Red is used for danger, daring, urgency and energy and blue denotes peace, calmness, confidence and affection. Greens is usually used for life, growth, freshness and healing while white signifies hope, purity and light.

Symbols are visual keys that have meaning to people with a common heritage around a given symbol. In Africa, where record of the oldest human communities lie, there are many tribal families that use symbols to tell stories and provide information, reminders and lessons. These symbols are considered sacred, and were primarily used in ceremonial and religious contexts.

 In West Africa, many symbols are used to convey messages and values within a community. The Akan and the Asante tribes of West Africa both use “Adinkra” symbols. The symbols are found frequently in the West African country of Ghana. The symbols are incorporated into face painting, fabrics, on interior wall designs and on pottery.

Tribal art differs depending on a person’s rank in society. The higher you rank, the more elaborate and complicated your face paint/make-up will be. Many start with basic tribal face paint (or tattoos) and as they rise through the ranks, more symbols are added to match with their rank and achievements.

Tribal markings amongst the Karo tribe of Ethiopia


The Karo are undeniably artistic by nature. Among other things, they are known for their alluring and intricate body and face painting. They decorate their bodies with locally found white chalk, yellow mineral rock, iron ore and charcoal. This is an elaborate process with designs ranging from simple and fine dots to rough but remarkable lines traced with palms or fingers. Animal motifs such as the spotted plumage of the guinea fowl are some of the striking body painting designs they do. Both men and women practice this symbolic and ornamental expression in a bid to appear more attractive to the opposite sex. It’s also done on special occasions.

Among certain tribes of sub-Saharan Africa, such as the Nuba, the Xhosa and the Maasai, face-painting and bodily decoration serve an important aesthetic function.

Nuban Face Painting

Although, historically, the Nuban people lived in an enclosed mountainous region in central Sudan, the United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that 245,000 refugees fled the region when war broke out in 2011. Nuban face painting indicates a person’s age group. Pre-adolescent boys decorate their faces in red and white; black is not permitted until they reach maturity at adolescence. Wearing the wrong color at the wrong age is considered an act of presumption, potentially meriting punishment, because doing so violates clearly established social divisions.

Face Painting in South Africa

The Xhosa tribe of South Africa uses face paint as a rite of passage. Boys entering adolescence undergo a ritual in which they’re separated from the rest of their tribe and embrace the mentorship of an older man. Once the ritual is over, they’re painted red. Among the Pondo people of South Africa, spiritual leaders paint their faces and bodies white because this establishes a mystical connection between them and their ancestors.

Maasai Face Painting

Young Maasai men, not yet warriors, in traditional face paint. Serengeti area, Tanzania – Photo: Marco Boria

According to a national census held in 2009, in Kenya, the Maasai tribe numbers about 840,000 people. The Masaai decorate their bodies with beads and jewelry, and wear plugs that greatly enlarge their earlobes. Toya, a former Maasai warrior interviewed by filmmaker Ton van der Lee, reports that young men who are undergoing the ritual of initiation into manhood fashion headdresses made out of lions’ manes or bird feathers. During the initiation, women shave off the men’s hair and paint their heads with red paint.

Wodaabe Face Painting

Image: (c) Weidinger

Also known as the Bororo tribe, the Wodaabe are known for their elaborate beauty pageants in which heavily decorated men compete for the attention of women. Men paint their noses with white clay and line their eyes with black eyeliner made out of egret bones. They adorn their faces with swirling symmetrical patterns of red, yellow, black and white. The winners of these contests become heroes of their tribes, are remembered for generations, and have the option of choosing brides for themselves.

There are more African tribes who adorn themselves with faceprinting that aren’t mentioned above, you might know them. comment below and tell us of an African tribe you know who also use tribal-makeup as a way to signify a certain stage in there lives, a ritual or for another reason.

The African Face-Painting Tradition : Classroom

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