Body Art

by Thulasizwe Somdyala

I was recently introduced to an interesting form of art, where the body is in use as a canvas and the beauty is in the sustained pain. Scarification is the permanent branding of the body through cutting and burning images or patterns.


After a little research to satisfy curiosity I noticed the culture of scarification in West Africa might have a connection with the scars I noticed on many faces early on in my childhood. My mother is one of the people I know owachazwayo (branded), so I asked her for the reasoning and her understanding of the practise, to clarify if my connection was indeed right.


Scarification is used as a form of initiation into adulthood, beauty and a sign of a village, tribe, and clan.


It is understood that the Nguni people migrated from West/Central Africa, further south and settled in what we know as South Africa today, with the Xhosa’s borrowing culture and linguistics of the indigenous Khoi-San people. My mother being of Nguni decent explained that the marks on her face were only done to her eldest brother and herself being eldest daughter. It was done at a very young age and she had no feeling towards them until her teenage stage when she started despising them. More often than not; face marks were associated with illiteracy & barbarism within the village.


child scarfication


“I guess this was the influence of westernisation which has undermined our culture, traditions and customs. This concerned me as an inexperienced girl socially since I knew that my family was one of the literate and believing in Christianity. Even though my father used to visit home once a year as he was a migrant worker in Johannesburg; he used to spend quality time with us as his children. As a consequence I had freedom to talk to him and interrogated things that I did not understand”.

“The marks on the face as one of my concerns; one day I asked my father why my brother & I have marks. For that matter even my father and mom did not have these marks. His reply was; it is a tradition at our family for an eldest son and daughter to have face marks. They are for beauty, strength and protection.”

And she continued to say… “As I grew up, started to have admirers as a girl; my late husband used to appreciate the marks. He said they make me special and he liked them.”

SoooO… in my little research I found out that in Africa due to climate and custom, insignificant amount of clothing was worn which resulted in the promotion of body art. Scarification became the most effective way to decorate as tattooing was not as clear and appealing on dark skin. The process involved puncturing patterns and motifs into the epidermis of the skin. Different apparatuses brought life to different variations of scars and then ash and certain organic saps were added to wounds when wanting to make scarring more prominent and embroidered.



The practise served as a symbol of strength, fortitude and courage in both sexes and scars were used to enhance beauty and social admiration. A woman’s enthusiasm to endure pain also served as a sign of emotional maturity and willingness to bear children.


The art of scarification is changing in Africa. In many communities, scarification patterns can now be seen only on the elderly. Ironically, people from both African and Western societies go under the knife in order to perfect their bodies. In the West, however, people prefer to hide their scars.
Scarification can be regarded as a boundary marker in terms of life stages, but also as an accepted cultural differentiator between the self and the other, or the civilised self and the natural self. As Susan Vogel states, “Scarification and other forms of body decoration were traditionally considered marks of civilisation. They distinguished the civilised, socialised human body from the body in its natural state and from animals.” (Vogel.1986.p.25)



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