The Southeast Nuba people of Sudan, Africa practiced an extraordinary tradition of bodyart, available to see primarily in two books: “Nuba Personal Art” by James C. Faris (1972) and “People of Kau” by Leni Riefensthal (1977). Although the second one contains the more accomplished photography, it is Faris’ book that yields the most information to a bodypainter. Through detailed visual analysis of their bodyart and interviews with the artists over three field sessions among the Nuba from 1966-1969, Faris decodes the visual language and, more valuably for a working body artist, explains the methodology and principles that led to such a stunning variety of designs. It is the most insightful and rigorous study of bodypainting (tribal or otherwise) that I’ve read.
The book contains sketches and charts by Faris encapsulating his analysis of Nuba bodyart patterns, with references to actual examples among the extensive photographs of painted individuals— the chart on page 47 is reproduced here. In addition to these formulas for generating bodypainting designs, he gives unique insights into otherwise impenetrable aspects of the images of the Nuba. For example, explaining that although they often use animal imagery there is no totemic connection to the animal’s powers (as there might be in Amazon or Native American bodyart). The animal imagery is chosen entirely for its value as a design element and how well it suits the forms of the body it is painted on.
Applying this analysis to one of the faces photographed by Leni Reifensthal, we can tell that this ostrich image is not chosen to give the wearer the speed of an ostrich but because the shape fits the eye socket so well. The long linear neck looks good going up the individual’s tall forehead and, by being placed precisely on the bridge of the nose, it keeps this asymmetrical design balanced. Further, Faris describes how Nuba artists manipulate the imagery to make it a pure design element by devices such as continuing the diagonal lines of the ostrich wings all the way into the hair line. He explains that if the lines continue off the face they are subjectively perceived as a design, while if they stop they are perceived more as a concrete object such as a wing. Finally, the removal of the literal interpretation of this design as “ostrich” is completed by outlining of the black design with a lighter yellow, a color which signifies that the design carries no meaning beyond its aesthetic appearance.
This is the quality that sets the Southeast Nuba apart from other traditional body arts, including the body arts of other Nuba cultures: the aesthetic value of the design and, especially, its ability to enhance the human form, transcend any meaning or ceremonial content in the design. When this art was practiced within their culture, young men in their prime would spend hours each day together, painting themselves and assisting with the painting of each other, creating unique designs daily — celebrating the human body by turning it into a work of art.
“Whatever the source of the designs used on the body, the critical factor is that the body must be emphasized, complemented, enhanced. No design or artistic treatment must detract from the presentation of the physical form itself — the chief reason, after all, for the personal art rests in the proper cultural exposure and celebration of the healthy body.” — James C. Faris
And he states that without dependence on symbolic content, “the most meaningful element is the medium on which it is … produced — the human body. This culturally proper exposure can be, perhaps as [anthropologist] Levi-Strauss has suggested, the essential expression of culturalogical man as opposed to the biological individual.” Which is to say that it is their personal art that signifies their identity as a social being.
Click here for a pdf of a tribal bodypainting guide I use in workshops, which includes my notes on one of the charts from Nuba Personal Art: Bodypainting_Tribal_agostinoarts
Learn more about all we do at: agostinoarts.com
See the video of the Nao Dance company in Bodies Alive!: The Nuba Bird Dance
- Tribal Facepainting Concept – design page
- Modern Primitive Art fine art bodypainting series
- Why Body Painting? – 4: Radical Act – The essential celebration of our humanity / the ultimate modern art (thestorybehindthefaces.com)
- Why Body Painting? – 3A: Origins – Why did we start painting ourselves? Ancient bodypainting kit discovered at Blombos Cave (thestorybehindthefaces.com)
- Men Getting Women Naked and Yves Klein – Female Nudity in Art (thestorybehindthefaces.com)
- From African Masks to Abercrombie & Fitch (thestorybehindthefaces.com)
- Why Body Painting? – 3: Origins – Touching Ancient Sources (thestorybehindthefaces.com)
- The Man Who Stayed Behind (in Sudan) (kristof.blogs.nytimes.com)