Yoruba and Maori body art


In addition to that, facial scarification is also used in the Yoruba culture as a way of protection from the spirit world. “The second class of facial stripes is Ilà Elére or Abiku, the set of stripes given to mischievous children.” The Yoruba people believe that any child that passes away shortly after birth or if a woman gives birth to a series of children who die in infancy are considered mischievous. Usually, the next children born are given special treatment and names. “In addition, they may be given a derogatory facial mark in order to prevent an accompanying spirit from accepting them back into the spirit world.” In an effort to hinder the Abiku spirit responsible for the deaths of the children, the Yoruba children receive single stripes on each cheek, or sometimes on other parts of the body. “Sometimes an oracle may prescribe that they not be given facial stripes as a means to preserve their lives.” Furthermore, within the Yoruba culture facial scarification is used to identify family ties and status. “Primarily, facial stripes are symbols representing lineage and family membership, with its prescribed status, duties, and obligations.” Every child born into a patrilineal family will receive lineage marks. Children who wear these marks are guaranteed tribal membership. Usually, the first-born will receive the father’s facial stripes; however, children can also be given their mother’s. “For example, a man may show affection toward his wife by allowing one of her daughters to be given the stripes of her clan.” From an outsider’s perspective, it may prove difficult to interpret information about someone from simply looking at the facial stripes on their face. However, it was explained, “To those literates in reading traditional stripes, a mere glance at someone’s face is sufficient enough to identify that person’s regional affiliation, town, or family.” On the other hand, another culture that uses body art and ornamentation is the Maori people of New Zealand. Men and women of the Maori culture receive a tattoo called the Ta moko or simply Moko. “Ta moko, the art of tattoo, was much more than mere body decoration; it was intricately connected to the social, political, and religious life of the Maori.”

In the Maori culture, tattoos are unique to each individual person. “The moko contained information about a person’s lineage tribe, occupation, rank, and exploits.” The moko tattoo is created by two methods. In one flesh was carved away and the pigment placed inside the grooves, resulting in deep, dark lines.” Secondly, “The second method was similar to most of Polynesia with pigment inserted underneath the skin with a sharp-toothed comb.” Men are typically tattooed on their faces, backs, and lower bodies; whereas women’s tattoos are usually carved around the lips in chin. There are many various patterns of the Maori tribal tattoos used as an identifier for tribal affiliations. In addition, “there are examples in history and in traditional carving in which important women had full-face moko.” “These women were of equal of higher rank than the male chiefs of their generation and their full-face moko was representative of that status” Simmon. The women who had a full-face moko were figuratively considered men. A woman who had a chiefly rank, tattooing was an important ceremony for her that is a rite of passage leading into adulthood. Based on research and self-analysis the Yoruba and Maori tribes practice intricate forms of body art and ornamentation as a way to self- express who they are. Although both cultures may differ in the process of body modification with their markings, the both utilize their skin as a canvas to express cultural beliefs and practices.


It is important within these cultures to endure these processes of body art and endure extreme levels of pain to express individuality, lineage, and social status. The practice of facial scarification stripes within the Yoruba tribe is fading. Although this trend started in the twentieth century, “Today, many Yoruba people believe that having a Yoruba name and being able to speak the language are sufficient markers of ethnic identity.” Also, with an increase in colonization, many of the people in the Yoruba culture have replaced painful practices of body art and ornamentation with more modern practices. For example, decoration of marks, pottery, clothing, and jewelry however, some parents may still choose to have children endure the process of facial scarification. The moko tattoo had diminished many years ago but is resurfacing in the Maori culture. “Over the last two decades, an increasingly, visible number of Maori have revived and renewed the practice, taking color into their skin.” However, social acceptance of the comeback within their country is a fight. Those who possess a moko tattoo are often discriminated against, gawked at strangely, and many outsiders consider the tattoo offensive.


‘Every culture, it would seem, has its mythology and seeks answers to the unknown to satisfy an inner urge to understand mysteries’ (Saxby, 1987, p.150,). The Yoruba are no exception. The Yoruba have lived in Southwest Nigeria and Benin for thousands of years. Due to the redrawing of borders in Africa there is no state called Yoruba. There are, however, approximately 20 million people throughout the world who speak Yoruba as their first language; 19 million live in Nigeria but many are dispersed around Africa and the rest of the world (African Policy Information Center, n.d.).


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