Body painting of the Omo Valley – Ethiopia


The Omo Valley in Ethiopia.. home to a large variety of traditional tribal communities including the Suri (surma), Morsi and Karo who all still partake in ceremonial body painting. Pictured above are members of the Suri(Surma) Tribe. Designs are specific to the individual and ceremony, they can be used to ward off bad health, attract the opposite sex or sometimes denote a right of passage in their lives. For example maturing and becoming an adult, or becoming a parent.

Maybe a potential reason for why body painting is so prevalent along this stretch of Valley, could be due to the offerings of the Omo river, natural products have been used to paint bodies for centuries. The Tribes surrounding the Omo River use Ochre which actually comes directly from the river. Like most tribal communities who have traditions of body painting they use the local resources which they have in abundance like the ochre from the river bed, white chalk, yellow mineral rock and pulverised iron ore.

The Mursi tribe in Ethiopia are known for the female tribe members who wear Lip plates. Members of the tribe have their lips cut at age 15/16 and as they get older the lip plate is enlarged and therefor their lip stretches. It is thought that the lip plates originated to prevent women from capture by slave traders. Negative connotations have since been attached to the lip plates, regarding mens expectations that women should be quiet, and like scarification it is now widely discouraged in most parts of Africa, however the tribal women who still practice this believe it to be an integral part of their culture and an honour to adorn themselves in this way.

Morsi Woman with Lip plate-

Karo Tribe – Traditional hair styles of the Males

‘Like the Hamer, some Kara men wear elaborate hairstyles that they build by weaving their hair in tight braids around the skull and forming a sort of chignon, then this is covered with chalk and butter; the final result looks more like a sculpture than a hairstyle’

This particular hairstyle is finished with some large ostrich feathers that symbolize courage.

It takes three days to make this elaborate hairstyle and the hairstyle is redone every 3 or 4 months and is worn for a maximum of one year.

It seems that this particular hairstyle is a sort of recognition that is attributed to the brave warriors.

‘This kind of cap is usually colored in white, red and black, these three colors have a mystical and legendary meaning; while if a man wears a gray and red colored hood and an ostrich feather, it means he has killed an enemy or a dangerous animal.’

Image by Art Wolfe

Karo Body painting

The peculiarity of this ethnic group is that, on the occasion of one of their many ceremonies, or on the occasion of an important visit, both men and women paint their faces and bodies, trying to reproduce a design that recalls the animals of the savannah, such as the spotted leopard or the guinea-fowl plumage.

Image by Art Wolfe

Like the traditions of the Suri(surma) and the Mursi tribe the Karo people use there natural surrounding as a resource for painting materials and find a wealth of colour from different plants and earth derived products.

Achieving different colours ; white is obtained from gypsum, anthracite from coal dust, yellow from a mineral rock and red from iron dust.

A fascinating contributor to the rich diversity of body art in this region is the absence of mirrors and reflections as the Omo River water is cloudy. This definitely contributes to the artistic freedom and natural beauty of the artwok, In the painted bodies you can really feel the ritual and spiritual significance and it’s clear tribes living in this valley have been using body art as a form of expression and social bonding experience for thousands of years. Never having or needing the ability to see yourself, as you see yourself reflected in others with their reaction to the patterns and designs on your face – the body art really becoming an extension of who they are.

‘Make no mistake, these muri or surma body paintings have nothing clownish about them. This is not a travesty, as in the carnival tradition, playing on a reversal of appearances and roles, but rather the expression of a skill, an essential art form and necessary. The fact, moreover, of erasing a painting in the water of the river whose result does not conform to the initial desire and of starting again, confirms it: the concept of success or failure exists, and gives all its value to this tradition inherited from the parents. It is an element of culture and as such, the act of painting and decorating is important, almost religious, despite its ephemeral and apparently anecdotal character.’

Surma Men – by myself Lizzie Rigby

Above is a panting I created of a Hans Silvester photograph of two Surma men painting each other before a ceremony. I Thought this photograph captured a beautiful moment, the time and care taken to adorn each other and the creative expression captured, I found it inspirational and wanted to pay tribute to that specific moment but also the body painting of the Omo valley in general and it’s organic natural beautiful aesthetic.


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