Body Art and Scarification

9 September 2016

African Body Art: Scarification Scarification is a Cultural practice among the African Culture. Some of the most elaborated patters scaring are found among the indigenous people of the Congo. The climate and costume in the Congo enable and promoted people to decor their bodies. Scarification is a procedure of incising the skin with a sharp tool to create raised marks and/or patterns. The tools used to cut the epidermis of the body are knife, glass, stone, coconut shell or seeds. Sometimes the wounds are manipulated with ashes or other substances to make them swell and leave a heavier scar.

Beautiful and complex designs depended not only on the artist’s skill, but also the person’s tolerance of pain. Scarification as a cultural practice carries a strong cultural significance within the individual, families, communities and society. Both men and women practice scarification. The main purpose of the practice is a notion of cultural aesthetic.

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Although there are many reasons for the practice of scarification, the quest for beauty is an essential issue or meaning to its use. In African Culture we have seen different practices that involve body modification.

For example the lip plates, cranial deformation or teeth mutilation. Which are all meant for an aesthetic purpose. Among the African society the relief of the scars is found attractive and sensual in a women who wear them. Also the decorations on their bodies was belief to please the ancestors. The second cultural significance I find in the practice of Scarification is “Identity”. Scarring can say a lot about the person wearing it. The symbols used can transmit messages of identity and social status.

It can be a matter of family pride, an indicator of one’s descent or tribal grouping. The design identifies a certain village or tribe. The scarring often takes place during rituals. The tribe people celebrate different stages of their life in rituals where scarification is performed. For example scarring is performed to signify childhood, the onset of puberty, initiations of young man to fraternities and adult hood. In a ritual to celebrate childhood the scarring commonly would be performed in the face or in the abdomen of young girls to emphasize the role of childbearing.

For African girls scarring is practiced to celebrate the onset of puberty, the first menstrual cycle and childbirth. A woman’s commitment to tolerate pain was an indication of her emotional maturity and willingness to bear children. Designs were added from youth and continued through adulthood. Which makes a parallel narrative between one’s body, the phases of life, an individual construction of identity and a communal notion of beauty Scarification rituals are also performed as a test for strength and courage.

Scarring is painful and requires great personal strength to get through the procedure without crying out in pain. To do so would be to humiliate yourself. Some one with complex and a good amount of scarring is perceived as a strong person and is well respected within the society. Scarification representation among with other formal qualities can be found represented in traditional African art sculptures implying its importance as an aesthetic and cultural component. Similar art forms were used to decorate the home of important elders.

I used two wooden sculptures as example from the Luluwa people a female and male figure. And the Mangbetu village, Ekibondo, Belgian Congo. As for the outside view of scarification, European missionaries that established in Africa disapproved the practice of scarification among the tribes. They contrasted it with an un-modified ‘natural body’ made in God’s image. During the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, postcards and photos featuring scarified people were circulated in Europe. Scarification came to represent the ‘exotic’.

I looked in to an article that addressed Belgian art nouveau as “imperial modernism,” created from Congo raw materials and inspired by Congo motifs. Henry van de Velde, one of the artists studied in the article, developed a theory and design of modern ornament, finding as one of his main sources the African body arts of scarification. Henry van de Velde studied the design worn by the Congolese people and implemented them in his costumes designs for women wear and furniture. I found really interested how many art forms origin resembles some aspect of African art.

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