By Tobijulo Onifade
Growing up, I remember tattoos and body decoration being implied as a new Western thing which was a bit confusing as my grandmother as well as a few older people I knew had some of tattoos/body decorations, especially on their arms. As I grew older, I took an interest in Nigerian artistry and the purpose of it all (which in essence was to serve human needs) and realised that before Colonisation the human body was a canvas and motifs used on other surfaces (like textiles, mats, and so on) were also used on the human body.
Image from ezibota.com
These decorations/motifs were used as a means to show affiliation, status and more importantly add aesthetic appeal. And different tribes/regions had their own method/practices with regards to body art. In the east, the Igbo people practised Uli, which was a special body painting technique applied on special occasions. These occasions were important life moments such as religious ceremonies, marriages, childbirth and so on. Even though Uli was worn by anyone and everyone it was mostly the women who appreciated it/used it more.
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Uli is a dye gotten from the berries of plants from the Rothmans family. There is the Rothmania hispida (uli okorobian) and Rothmania whitfieldi (uli oba or uli nkpo). According to an article on ezibota.com, pods were collected from these trees and then women would grind them on a stone slav or hard surface. This would then reveal a fleshy pulp containing crushed seeds. The mixture of the pulp and seeds was squeezed through cotton wool cloth producing a light yellowish liquid which is Uli.
According to the book Nigerian Artistry, Uli was applied using a small knife, a sliver from the raffia palm or a feather. The feather was used in drawing the patterns which were formed/generated from natural and man-made objects. Designs were sometimes abstract (lines, circles, zigzags, etc), some were based on household tools/instruments (stools, basket, iron gong, etc), animals (lizards, scorpion, python, and so on), heavenly bodies (moon, stars) and fruits and plants. The Kola nut was one of the most popular motifs according to Nigerian Artistry “as it was abstracted from the lines and spaces between the four lobes of the kola nut and the number four signify auspiciousness and completeness in Igbo”. The designs lasted for about a week. Uli was taken a step further by applying the patterns/motifs on walls of homes and sacrificial fronts such as shrines.
Image from grandmotherafrica.com
Although Uli sort of lost its appeal due to Colonisation, there are still people who have kept this art alive but in a different way. The patterns/motifs are now applied on textiles and used in all sort of visual art such as sculpture and painting. There is a group of artists known as the Nsukka group which are known for reviving the art of Uli in modern times and using art mediums of today like gouache, watercolour, acrylic and so on. These people are not just visual artists but poets and more. Members of these group include Ada Udechukwu, Obiora Udechukwu, Olu Oguibe, Uche Okeke and so on.
Image by Ada Udechukwu from mutual art.com
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