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Would you ever choose to insert a metal plate in your lower lip to express yourself? Or cut patterns into your cheeks? People all around the world use body modifications as cultural self-beautification for reasons that seem foreign to outsiders. Nowhere are these practices more deeply ingrained than in Africa, where multiple tribes’ unique cultures, traditions, and body modifications symbolize this rich history. Just in Ethiopia, the Surma tribes use body modifications to define themselves as an individualistic group of people. Surma is a name given by the Ethiopian government to identify three different tribes: the Suri, the Mursi, and

the Me’en. Body modification styles and types define and identify members of these distinct groups, although some modifications overlap between tribes.

One distinctive body decoration used by the Surma tribes is body painting. The people of the different Surma tribes use clay and other natural minerals to paint their bodies for various purposes. For example, the chief’s children paint their faces white in order to distinguish themselves from other children in the tribe, particularly if there are outsiders visiting the tribe’s village. Also, Surma warriors paint each other’s bodies during hunting season to appear intimidating. They also use body paint for tribal ceremonies and celebrations. Some members of these tribes even believe that the paint helps to protect against harm.


Surma tribes in Omo, Ethiopia, use scarification to create beauty marks. Scarification is the process of creating permanent marks (scars) on one’s skin, usually by cutting or burning. The Suri tribe uses scarification on the face

52 ▶ winter 2016

Photography by Dietmar Temps

Body Paint

Stowaway Winter 2016  

Winter is here, but adventure awaits! Strike up a conversation, spark a new interest, or slip into something familiar in this issue of Stowa...

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