African Ceremonies

Ritual Costume and Traditional Fashions from across the African Continent

From the elegant makeup and dress of the Wodaabe nomads in Northern Africa, to the bold geometry of Pedi bead work in South Africa, from the vivid red ochre paint that covers Maasai bodies in the East to the sumptuous gold work and fabrics of the Ashanti Kingdom in the West. Every corner, every people, every tribe on the African continent brings their own unique vision, energy and execution to their ritual fashions. A myriad of styles dress the important passages of life for tribal communities, traditional peoples and royal kingdoms and allow them to celebrate the diverse colour, form, texture and style that makes Africa a powerhouse of creativity and never-ending source of design inspiration.  From body painting techniques 100,000 years old to incorporation of the most contemporary materials and designs, the traditional peoples of African have style as alive and vibrant as the rites and rituals that they celebrate. Not mere costumes, these garments and cosmetics have deeper power and meanings. They beautify the wearer for courtship and seduction, strengthen social bonds within communities, and convey secret meanings and coded messages about the wearer’s social status, wealth, availability and desires. The ceremonial couture of Africa has been and continues to be a source of deep inspiration for artists and designers worldwide.

MAASAI WARRIORS ARRIVING AT EUNOTO CEREMONY - The most demanding test that a Maasai warrior traditionally had to face was the stalking and killing of a lion with only his wits and a spear to arm him. The lion’s-mane headdresses, orolawaru, worn to the ceremony by these warriors testify to their success.

PAINTED SURMA BODY, ETHIOPIA - A Surma man paints his skin with ground chalk and natural earth pigments using a twig splayed into a brush at the tip. Surma body paint design often draws attention to vital body parts, including the male and female genitals. In this image, a cleverly elongated penis is surrounded by the curved female form.

BAMILEKE ELEPHANT MASK, CAMEROON - Cameroon warriors who render a great service to the Bamileke King are eligible to be member of the Aka, or 'Elephant Mask' society. They dance at the funeral of the King and at twice yearly meetings wearing dramatic hats and elaborately beaded elephant masks. These costumes belong to the King and display his wealth, power and privilege. The influx of tiny 'pound beads', so called because they were sold by the pound in a limitless range of colours and regular shapes were traded into Central Africa and enabled the development of new motifs of sculptural beadwork incorporating symbolic animal and plant designs.

ARRIVAL OF BENI CHIEFS AT IGUE CEREMONY, BENIN CITY, NIGERIA - The Beni Chiefs dress in flamboyant red costumes which are colour of blood, symbolising life force and power. The texture of the costume imitates the scales of the large red pangolin which is believed to eat all ants and cannot be stung due to its armoured skin. The chiefs carry the Eben sword which they skilfully toss in the air and catch as they enter the palace grounds.

HAMAR WOMEN, ETHIOPIA - The torques and armlets worn by Hamar women are permanently fixed onto their bodies by the local blacksmith. These, along with traditional beadwork and cowrie shell decorated skins are innovatively mingled with contemporary textiles and items favoured items of clothing such as the red bra in this image, which is shared by all of the girls.

WODAABE MALE CHARM DANCERS, NIGER - Wearing intricately embroidered tunics, Wodaabe male charm dancers stand side by side forming a long line in front of admiring women. Shoulder to shoulder they quiver forward on tiptoe to accentuate their heigh and launch into a series of wildly exaggerated facial expressions from which their charm, magnetism and personality will be judged: eyes roll, teeth flash, lips purse part and tremble and cheeks pout in short puffs of breath.

SCARIFIED BACK OF MURSI WOMAN, ETHIOPIA - To attract the opposite sex, Mursi women scarify their bodies in ornate geometric patterns by drawing a design onto the body then making a series of small cuts with a razor or thorn. These cuts are then rubbed with ash to create the raised patterns on the skin. The decorative scars of the Mursi were some of the deepest and most dramatic we had ever seen. Men in the Omo don't like to kiss - it is the touch of a woman scarified skin that excites them.


Credits: Story

Photography & Captions by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher

Introduction by Jonathan Richardson

Curated by Ranulph Redlin & Maria Alexander

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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