Cultural Face Painting has been used for many motives. It has been used for hunting, entertainment, religious reasons and military reasons (mainly as a method of camouflaging) or to scare ones enemy. Decorating one's face in various patterns and shapes has been a part of the cultural make up of many societies since the beginning of time. Face painting is a common theme across cultures as divergent as the Red Indians in North America and various cultures in Africa and South America. The art of transforming ourselves with make-up and masks is a universal phenomenon. Before we sought to vent our artistic impulse on a cave wall, we painted on our faces and bodies. Indians of the Amazon have said that in this power to change ourselves, we demonstrate our humanity and set ourselves apart from the world of the animals. Patterns developed over time to signify a variety of cultural events and these conveyed an emotional meaning that was attached to them. The wide range of patterns that a face painter can create, enhance the emotions and meaning of the cultural events. The patterns can be color specific or randomly geometric seemingly without any significance. The shapes and colors convey a strong bond and meaning amongst people who have a face painting tradition. They are a connection to their past and carry a very strong cultural meaning in their lives. The reason people use face art to transform themselves may be varied. Sometimes they choose to do so as a part of a ritual or at other times they do so to mark their status (as is the case with some aboriginal groups), but the colorful and dynamic language of the face painting remains the same.
Societies that still follow the ancient custom of face painting choose the colors according to the available raw materials. In ancient times, only primary and locally available colors like red, blue, yellow or white were used. Sometimes by sprinkling dust or soft bird feathers, special effects were achieved. Nowadays most choose to use branded face paints. Artists paint bold, mask-like designs inspired by imagery from nature, imagination, and traditional masks. Unlike dance and music where the most charming modes and sweetest strains disappear before they are understood, painting captures the emotions and expressions and retains the impact for a long period. Painting is essentially a combination of lines, forms, colors, tones, texture and space. It attempts to convey the spoken and unspoken expressions with the strokes of a brush.
Face painting is considered to be an important tradition among Native Americans. It is much more than just a beautifying practice. It's a sacred social act of distinction and a cultural heritage. On special occasions, faces of the tribe members are painted to augment one's appearance and power. Each tribe of the Indians has its own and unique way of face painting. For Native Americans Indians, roots, berries and tree barks are most commonly used to make the dyes for face painting. These natural raw materials are ground and made to a paste to make the dye. Clay of different hues is also used in Native Indian face painting. These wonderful colors along with the ideal face painting designs do create a desired effect. The process involves a strict ritualistic order that is maintained during the application of these colors. The colors are first applied around the nose and only the index finger and middle finger is used for the application. The rest of the face such as the forehead, chin and eye areas is then carefully covered with paint. For some, faces are covered and then plastered down with mud; leaving the holes for the eyes and mouth. Generally the warriors would paint their faces with colored clay and then proceed to design their tribe. Each tribe has its own designs for war and ceremonies.
The Aborigines who inhabit central Australia have inherited specific face painting designs from their ancestors. These designs are painted onto the face and body using ground ochre mixed with water. They are applied either in stripes or circles. Even the modern paintings of the Central and Western Desert are characterized by these specific designs. It seems the aboriginal tribes have devised an entirely new language of painting, using cryptic symbols for different things. Body painting, decoration and personal adornment traditionally carry deep spiritual significance for Australian Aboriginal people. Body painting is carried out within strict conventions that are primarily related to spiritual matters, although the creative nature of these activities is also acknowledged. The particular motifs used by individuals reflect their social position and relationship to their family group and also to particular ancestors, symbolic animals and tracts of land. People are not free to change their appearance at will; they must conform to respected patterns. In many situations individuals are completely transformed so that they 'become' the spirit ancestor they are portraying in dance.
The development of the art of painting faces is closely related to that of dramatic art, although the earliest painted faces or their precursors appeared long before Chinese drama took shape. As Chinese dramatic art developed, the drawbacks of wearing masks became increasingly evident, for masks prevented the actors from showing their facial expressions. A vividly painted face however enables audiences to see expressions clearly. In the beginning only three sharply contrasting colors - red, white and black were generally used in facial make up. The earliest painted faces were simple and crude but within time the designs became more elaborate and ornamental. Chinese Operas were based on old tales of heroes and the supernatural. Today the stories often deal with heroes of the communist revolution or with great historical events of the recent past. The variety of Chinese Opera known as Beijing Opera is the most familiar in the west. It was originally staged for the royal family and was introduced to the public later. Beijing opera was regarded to as one of the rare forms of entertainment. There are thousands of opera pieces covering the entire history and literature of China.
As all the stories depicted in Kathakali relate to mythological characters with the natural stage not being more than a few square feet lit by a single coconut oil fed lap, the entire get up is designed to generate an atmosphere to suit the story. The loud instrument used, the makeup and costumes employed, the painting of the faces, the display of the 'Chutti' as part of the facial make-up, are only the instruments used to achieve this objective. While being made up, the actors lie on their backs as the makeup men work on their faces. The facial makeup is designed in such a way as to indicate the intrinsic nature of each and every character. Pacha, Kathi, Thadi, Kari, Minukku and Theppu are the different types of makeup followed in Kathakali which are determined according to the basic qualities of the character portrayed. The underlying purpose is to create in the minds of the audience an atmosphere of the supernatural.
In the Nuba clan of Southern Sudan, the colors of the face, body and special hairstyles show a person's age group. The use of colors is strictly controlled. Red and white are the first colors that an older boy is allowed to use from about the age of eight. Black decorations are not normally permitted until his initiation into an older group. These ways are strictly monitored that it is punishable if a younger man uses a color that he is not entitled to. The young men have particularly elaborate hairstyles, divided up into sections. The younger boys have smaller styles. Often the painting on the body and face represents animals, with the shapes adapted to human shape. In Southern Ethiopia, the Karos excel in face and body painting, practiced in preparation of their dances and many ceremonies such as courtships using white chalk, charcoal, 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. In Southeastern Nigeria, paintings carry a lot of symbolism to the Efik tribe such as love and purity. In those days, painting of faces was a way of expressing the tribe native's own identity that also included patterns for identifying families and clans. In some cases, face painting symbolizes the happiness of giving birth to a child or good news recieved. For single women, a painted face is the equivalent of an initiation rite for the bearer to formally enter the society of women. The native female dancers called Abang, use face painting as way of expressing their beauty, love and complete femininity.
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 symbolizes 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 Woodabe tribe, also called the Bororo tribe of Eastern Niger, 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.
Face painting colors in many cultures have special significance. Red is an intense color; it is the color of war in the Native American culture; however, it is a color used for ceremonies by the Woodabe of Niger and Karos of Ethiopia. It is also a staple color worn by Massai people of Kenya. Extraordinarily enough, black which would be considered to be an inauspicious color in most cultures, is the color of 'living', worn on the face during war preparations by Native Americans. White predictably is the color of peace in a lot of cultures; while in some, the color green when worn under the eyes is believed to empower the wearer with a night vision. Yellow is considered an inauspicious color in a few cultures with the exception of tribes such as the Woodabe or the Papau of New Guinea for it is regarded as the color of loss and the color of "old bones." Care is taken not to wear a lot of yellow, unless one is in mourning. Also yellow can mean a man has lived his life and will fight to the finish.
Face painting can achieve undeniable facial beauty. Modern day cosmetic colorants used now represent a clear link with original facial paints. This type of cosmetic face decoration incorporates a huge range of dyes, lotions, applicators and techniques for adorning the lines of the eyes and lips, and for coloring the cheeks, mouth and other facial areas. It remains a complex decorative art, performed to highlight gender and beauty, and express personality. One high-point of this form of face painting is the Japanese Geisha culture, in which women's faces are decorated to an almost artistic standard. Even if face painting was not classified as a visual art nor included in the history of art, arguably both the traditional form and its modern day cosmetics counterpart converts the mundane into something beautiful and visually stimulating.
Photos by Eric Lafforgue