Monday, January 8, 2018

Excerpts About The Meanings Of The Color White In Seven Traditional African Cultures

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post is Part II of an ongoing series that presents quotes from various online articles that provide information about the meanings of certain colors, designs, and objects in specific traditional African cultures.

The excerpts in this post refer to the traditional cultures of the Chokwe ethnic group (Angola), the Baluba ethnic group (Democratic Republic Of The Congo), the Central Ijo ethnic group (Nigeria), the Igbo ethnic group (Nigeria), the Dan ethnic group of Liberia, and the Lobi and Bwa ethnic groups (Burkina Faso).

I've also included additional online quotes about Igbo religion under the #1 of the text given as Excerpt #4.

One video of Mami Wata sculptures and four videos of Burkina Faso masks are included in this post.

Use pancocojams' internal search engine or click the "the meaning of colors in traditional African cultures" tag below to find other pancocojams posts on this subject.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, cultural purposes and aesthetic purposes.

Thanks to the researchers who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to the publishers of these videos on YouTube.
Part III of this post which showcases the Yoruba orisa Obatala, whose title means "the king of the white cloth", will be published ASAP and can be found by clicking the above mentioned tag.

Since at least 2015, there have been a number of YouTube tutorials about "African Face Painting" (also given as "African Tribal Painting"). Many of these videos focus on painting temporary designs made out of dots, lines, swirls, and/or other geometric figures on one's face and/or body or on another person's face/body.

The appropriateness of Black people and other people in the United States and other Western cultures wearing so-called "African tribal" face and body painting has been and continues to be hotly debated. Click for a 2016 pancocojams post on the subject of whether it's culturally appropriate for Black people in the African Diaspora (and other people) to paint dots and other so-called African tribal designs on their face and/or body.

Rather than add to that debate, I've chosen to focus on questions that continue to be asked in a number of discussion threads of YouTube videos of these "African Tribal Painting" tutorials. This post and some other posts in this pancocojams series addresses the question: "Which African ethnic groups* do these painted designs (or designs like this) come from?"

Most of the publishers of these tutorials respond to these questions by saying that their designs are "inspired" by various (usually unnamed) African "ethnic groups"*.

*Note that I've substituted the term "ethnic group" for "tribe" as I consider "tribe" to be a term that's loaded with all sorts of negative European colonial connotations.

In this pancocojams series I'll provide some information gleaned from the internet that provides some information about the meanings of colors in traditional African face and body painting, scarification, masking, and sculpturing.

Use pancocojams's internal search engine or click the "meanings of colors in traditional African cultures" tag below to find other pancocojams post on this subject.

By no means is this post meant to be a definitive account of the meanings of the color white in traditional African cultures.

I have very little knowledge about this subject and I'm learning as I go...

Notice that some of the excerpts in this series refers to traditional African masks as I believe that descriptions of those masks may be useful in helping to explain the meaning of temporary face and body painting or permanent scarification in those specific African cultures.

Of course, many contemporary African face/body painting in Africa and elsewhere may the results of the painter's own creativity, and have very little or no real (authentic) traditional African cultural source and meaning.

The excerpts are given in no particular order and are numbered for referencing purposes only.

These excerpts discuss a photograph that is found on the linked page.

I added italics for statements that describe or explain the significance of the color white in that photograph. Statements about other tattoos or other body decorations are also included in some of these excerpts. Note, for example, the statement about the meaning and history of the triangle tattoo on the forehead. In some other African ethnic groups that design or similar cross-like designs are also worn over the forehead extending from a female's headband.


"Masks and headdresses
in the collection of antique, classical, ethnic, ethnographic, ethno-tribal, native, ritual, traditional, tribal, so-called "primitive" art from Sub-Saharan black Africa
Angola or Zambia or Congo / DRC / formerly Zaire
Bachaukwe / Bachokwe / Badjok / Bajokwe / Bakjokwe / Batshioko / Batsjokwe / Chaukwe / Chokwe / Ciokwe / Cokwe / Djok / Djokwe / Jokwe / Kioko / Kiokue / Quioco / Shioko / Tchokwe / Tschokwe / Tsjokwe / Tshokwe / Tsjaukwe / Tshioko / Tsonge / Tuchokwe / Watschiwokwe tribe/people
mwanaphwo / mwanapwo / mwanapwevo / mwana phwo / mwana pwo / mwano pwo / pwo / phwo / pwevo / p'wo face masks

This type of mask represents the archetypal, ideal young female beauty.

Most pieces show traditional facial scarification patterns; markings / motifs that represent tattoos, filed teeth, remarkable hair styles.

About the tattoos the following has been written:
The cruciform tattoo with triangles on the forehead is known as cingelyengelye.

Originally, cingelyengelye occurred as a necklace in the form of a cross, cut from tin plate, and worn by the Chokwe as an amulet. During the 17th century, Capuchin monks from the Order of Christ of Portugal had distributed medals in
the form of a cross throughout Chokwe country, and this cross was probably the prototype for cingelyengelye.

Another type of tattoo is known as cijingo, in combination with a cross. Cijingo denotes a spiral brass bracelet.

A tattoo on the forehead and extending to the temples is known [as] a mitelumuna, or "knitted eyebrows," an allusion to discontentedness or arrogance.

Tattoos under the eyes are known as masoji, signifying tears.

Some masks have white kaolin around the eyes, which may represent the ability to see into spiritual realms.

1. From

Mbudye official during initiation, Katanga Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1988. Photo by Mary Nooter Roberts.

The most important function of the Mbudye association was to initiate potential rulers and other officeholders into Luba esoteric knowledge. Initiation rites consisted of four stages, during which didactic devices were used to convey complex information about the origins and premises of Luba kingship. During the third level of initiation, wall paintings were used to illustrate migrations and to show sacred sites where spirits reside across the Luba landscape. During this level, each initiate adopted a spirit persona and became clairvoyant, as reflected by the white lines of enlightenment painted around the official’s eyes. But only during the fourth and final stage of lukasa did an initiate achieve full mastery of the nuances of Luba royal precepts and prohibitions. As guardians of such knowledge, Mbudye officials could remove a king from office if he transgressed the royal codes."

2. From

[Pancocojams Editor's Warning: The photograph that is described includes a woman whose chest isn't covered.]

"Investiture ceremony for a Luba chief, Katanga Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1988. Photo by Mary Nooter Roberts.

During investiture rites, a Luba king or chief is transformed from an ordinary mortal into a sacred ruler. Here, two elder titleholders anoint a candidate to the office of territorial chief with white chalk to indicate ritual transition and accord with the spirit world. Chalk is a metaphor for the moon, which rises to brighten the sky each month after several days of darkness. Like the rising moon, a Luba ruler brings enlightenment to his people in the form of sound leadership and heightened vision. The investiture of a king is also compared to forging iron, for just as a blacksmith transforms raw metal into useful tools and weapons, so is an ordinary mortal transformed into a superhuman being through a ceremony called "the beating of the anvils," during which a dignitary would symbolically beat upon the knees of a king to signify the creation of sacred power."

3. From
"Luba diviner wearing beaded headdress, Katanga Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1988. Photo by Mary Nooter Roberts.

Once Bilumbu diviners have been "seized" by the spirit, they chalk their laces with pemba chalk, called "the diviner’s oil," and don accoutrements that reflect the spirit's special attributes. Bilumbu attire includes bead and shell necklaces, turtle-shaped arm bands, animal pelts, leathers, and the beaded headdress called nkaka, which refers to a pangolin. Pangolin scales are considered strong, durable, and resistant, and for this reason, they are often included in the medicinal compositions of Luba diviners and healers. An nkaka headdress is worn by all royal specialists who undergo possession, and the purpose of this colorful rectangular headband, with its juxtaposed isosceles triangles and lozenges, is to take hold of the spirit as it mounts the diviner’s head and to contain, control, and protect it—in the same way a pangolin wraps itself up in a ball, its horny scales defending it from danger.

1. From
"Shrine for Wonyinghi, the creator, Azuzama, Bassan clan. Central Ijo peoples, Nigeria, 1979. Photo by Martha G. Anderson.

The Ijo believe that both people and spirits originate far off in the sky in a place called Wonyinghibou, or 'Our Mother's Forest', and return there after death to await rebirth. They reason that the creator is female, because only women can bear children. Wonyinghi takes little interest in earthly events, but some Central Ijo towns seek her help in preventing epidemics. The priest of this shrine claims that no one knows what Wonyinghi looks like because she lives so far away, but songs portray her as an old woman wearing white, the color associated with the spirit world. The staff and stool combination, which serves as her emblem here, can also be used to represent other spirits. At a festival held during the dry season, shrine members raise the divination ladder to communicate with Wonyinghi, sweep the town clean with the broom, and sprinkle medicines from the pot to keep sickness at bay.

2. From
"Shrine for the nature spirit Apeghele. Olugbobiri, Olodiama clan. Central Ijo peoples, Nigeria, 1979. Photo by Martha G. Anderson.

In contrast to spirits living on land, water spirits tend to be benevolent beings who bring people children and money. Instead of black or dark blue, the colors bush spirits use to signify indomitability, water spirits like white, a color which connotes spirituality and wealth; they prefer offerings of imported food and beverages, like corned beef and Sprite, to the local produce bush spirits consume. Likewise, water spirits typically materialize as aquatic animals or things found in the water, instead of as vines and termite mounds, and seldom request figure carvings. In spite of these differences, the Ijo view spirits from the two zones as complementary and claim they can even intermarry. Diviners consulted about a small bronze caryatid found in the water determined it was Apeghele's water wife. Apeghele, a bush spirit, formerly had two wives; the carving of his bush spirit wife has deteriorated, but his water wife stands propped against his legs.

3. From

"Ijo peoples, Nigeria, diviner and shrine. Photo by Martha G. Anderson.

Water spirits can materialize in many forms, but the Ijo generally describe them as beautiful beings with fair skin and long, flowing hair. In keeping with their watery habitat and associations with wealth and trade, they often choose shiny and/or manufactured items as their emblems: men typically purchase plastic dolls to represent their water wives; women use a glass tumbler, white saucer, and native chalk ensemble for their water husbands. As in the case of Apeghele's water wife, diviners often consider objects people find in the water, like miniature paddles, sticks of wood, and keys, to be water spirits. This diviner says the emblems in her shrine appeared magically, like the glass tumbler she discovered after hearing something fall during a storm. According to her, not even the wooden objects in the shrine were carved by human hands. Diviners often have multiple spirit companions; this one claims to have one hundred and forty.

1. From

Figure of Ala in an mbari. Igbo peoples, Nigeria. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.

Larger than life-size, Ala dominates the most accessible side of houses dedicated to her. Like other Igbo deities, she is ambivalent, considered good—she peels yams for her "children" (villagers) with the knife she holds aloft—and potentially evil—“dark Ala, who kills those who offend her." But her face, like those of most mbari inhabitants, is white, the honorific color of goodness and purity (and having nothing to do with race or actual skin color). As Earth, she opens "to swallow people" in graves, the same Earth that provides yam, the main prestige food, plus other plant and animal life. Despite being an older woman of high status (Igbo culture is gerontocratic), she is a principal font of human, animal, and agricultural fertility and productivity.

Behind Ala are two elongated figures in high relief that represent the "spirit workers" initiated into the sacred building activity—liminal beings whose rendering in relief, rather than three dimensionally, reinforces their status as "in between." Note too the two figures seated above, on the "second storey" level, with a painted cloth between them.
Here's information about Ala and "mbari" from
"Ala (also known as Ani, Ana, Ale, and Ali in varying Igbo dialects) is the female Alusi (deity) of the earth, morality, fertility and creativity in Odinani. She is the most important Alusi in the Igbo pantheon. In Odinani, Ala rules over the underworld, and holds the deceased ancestors in her womb. Her name literally translates to 'Ground' in the Igbo language, denoting her powers over the earth and her status as the ground itself. Ala is considered the highest Alusi in the Igbo pantheon. Ala's husband is Amadioha, the sky deity.

As the goddess of morality, Ala is involved in judging human actions and is in charge of Igbo law and customs known as 'Omenala'. Taboos and crimes among Igbo communities that are against the standard of Ala are called nsọ Ala. All ground is considered 'Holy land' as it is Ala herself. With human fertility, Ala is credited for the productivity of the land. Ala's messenger and living agent on earth is the python (Igbo: éké), which is especially revered in many Igbo communities. In art, Ala is often represented as a regal figure seated on a throne, surrounded by her family. In the past, such figures took the form of life-size mud sculptures in special festive shrines dedicated to the deity and known as Mbari."
Herbert M. Cole, the researcher of this essay describes "mbari" as a "monument is a merging of architecture, sculpture, bas relief, and painting, designed and executed as a work of art, as well as a major offering to an unseen but ever present god."

Here's information about the Igbo word "Odinani" from
"Odinani (Igbo: ọ̀dị̀nànị̀) comprises the traditional religious practices and cultural beliefs of the Igbo people of southern Nigeria.[1] Odinani has monotheistic and panentheistic attributes, having a single God as the source of all things. Although a pantheon of spirits exists, these are lesser spirits prevalent in Odinani expressly serving as elements of Chineke (or Chukwu), the supreme being or high god.[2] Chineke is a compound word encompassing the concept of chí is the creator (nà) is a verb meaning 'that' while ékè means create. Chineke therefore means the Creator or the God that created all things...

Chukwu as the central deity is classed among the ndi mmuo, 'invisible beings', an ontological category of beings which includes Ala the divine feminine earth force, chi the 'personal deity', ndichie the ancestors, and mmuo the minor spirits. The other ontological category consists of ndi mmadu, 'visible beings', which include ánụ́ animals, ósísí plants, and the final class ùrò which consists of elements, minerals and inanimate beings.[14] Chukwu as the creator of everything visible and invisible and the source of lesser divinities is also referred to as Chineke. Chukwu is genderless[15] and is reached through various spiritual forces mainly under the spirit class of Alusi who are incarnations of the high god; no sacrifices, however, are given to Chukwu and no shrines and altars are erected for him"...

“Korto (deangle mask), Dan peoples, Liberia. February 1986. Photo by William Siegmann.

Deangle masks have oval faces with slit-like eyes. Their characteristic behavior is graceful and gentle and they represent the Dan ideal of beauty. Other canons of beauty are illustrated by the full lips with a few teeth showing in the partially open mouth and the elegant curve of the forehead. The eyes are nearly closed conveying a sense of serenity. A band of white clay across the eyes represents the cosmetic decoration used by women as adornment on special occasions. The white cowry shells which form a band on the forehead of this mask symbolize wealth and prestige and the honor which is given to the mask.

2. From
"Deangle mask (Korto=“You don’t make farm”), Dan peoples, Liberia. February 1986. Photo by William Siegmann.

Deangle masks are meant to give pleasure and comfort to the community. Their most basic function is to serve as intermediaries during initiation rites between the boys in the “bush school” camps and their mothers in the town. In addition, however, many are also either singers or dancing masks. This dancing mask is named “Korto,” a popular woman’s name. The name translates as “you don’t make farm” meaning that the mask is so beautiful to watch that it serves as a distraction and keeps people from their work.

3. From
"Deangle mask (sohn), Dan peoples, Liberia. February 1986. Photo by William Siegmann.

The tall conical hat worn by this deangle is called a sohn and announces to the audience that this mask is an entertainer and most particularly a dancer. The mask is also a jokester, however, and frequently comes out on solemn occasions to lighten and enliven the atmosphere.

1. From

A Lobi diviner casting cowrie shells to communicate with God, south of Gaoua, Burkina Faso, 1984. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The Lobi ritual specialist is called thildaar. He is a diviner, a person who specializes in communicating with God, or the gods. In other communities, he may be called a rabbi, pastor or priest, and he may communicate with God by means of prayer. This diviner uses cowry shells, which he casts in a sacred circle of chalk on the floor in front of him. This diviner, south of Gaoua, has covered himself with the same sacred chalk he uses to draw the circle, as a sign that he is in contact with the spirits. The spirits are represented by the three small wooden figures next to the cowries. It is through the diviner that the spirits pass down to their human congregation the religious taws they must observe if they are to receive the spirits' blessings.

3. From
"Four nwantantay (plank masks), Nyumu family, Bwa peoples, village of Boni, Burkina Faso, 1983. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Among the Bwa people, who live just to the north of the Lobi and to the west of the Kassena, in central Burkina Faso, the graphic patterns that represent the religious laws each community or congregation must obey are made visible on the great plank masks which perform in the village several times each year. The masks are said to embody the spirits of the wilderness, which intervene with the forces of nature to provide health and well being to the community. In the case of the plank masks, which may be six feet tall and two feet wide, the broad flat masks serve as an ideal medium for displaying these laws in the form of graphic patterns. Here, four such masks, which belong to the Nyumu family in the town of Boni, are seated, awaiting their turn to perform in the plaza at the center of the community."

4. From
"Mamy Wata mask, Bwa peoples, village of Boni, Burkina Faso, 1983. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Among the most common of graphic patterns are the alternating black and white rectangles that form what looks like a checkerboard. The Bwa associated these with the value of spiritual knowledge and the importance of lifelong learning. In contrast to our own systems of symbols, in which white represents the light of knowledge and black the darkness of ignorance, for the Bwa, who are themselves black, black represents knowledge and white is ignorance. When every young Bwa man and woman leaves the initiation camp he is given a newly cured, white goat hide on which he sits during every mask performance. These are stored between sacred performances in the smoky kitchens to keep them safe from insect damage. With increasing use and increasing knowledge, the new white hides become a rich, sooty, glossy black.

5. From
"Nwantantay (plank masks), Lamien family, Bwa peoples, village of Dossi, Burkina Faso, 1984. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The plank masks serve as moving, living signboards that display ideas about ethical and moral behavior. The cross at the center is worn by all southern Bwa as a mark of faith. The waves or zigzags represent the path of the ancestors, which every Bwa should follow if he wishes to receive the blessings and guidance of his grandfathers. It is a difficult path to follow and easy to go astray. The pair of concentric circles represent the sacred wells around which Boni was founded, and the crescent at the peak represents the hot season moon beneath which the young men and women of the community are initiated. The masks weigh more than sixty pounds each, and only the strongest young men, with neck muscles strengthened by months of practice, can wear the masks without serious injury.

6. From

"The Bwa are cultural sponges. They are quick to adopt any new patterns of belief that they feel will help them against disaster and disease.


7. From
"Mamy Wata mask, Nyumu family, Bwa peoples, village of Boni, Burkina Faso, 1984. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The newest Bwa cultural “acquisition” is the religion of Mamy Wata, a spirit of prosperity and well-being that originated in the Niger River Delta, far to the southeast of Burkina Faso. Mamy Wata is a spirit associated with the watery environment of southern Nigeria, and so her image is part woman, part fish. In 1983, when all foreign workers were expelled from Nigeria, three young Bwa men from Boni returned home bringing Mamy Wata with them. Her image was then carved on the great plank masks as a means of communicating the image of this new spirit. As she is represented on the backs of the masks, she raises her arms in the Bwa gesture of praise for success and achievement."

8. From
"Joseph Chukwu (ca. 1900-1986, Utu Etim Ekpo, Abak, Akwa Ibom State)


Mami Wata figure, ca. 1975

Wood, fiber, pigment

H. 58.42 cm (23")

The University of Iowa Museum of Art, Gift of Pamela J. Brink, RN, PhD, 1991.225

The image of Mamy Wata in the Stanley Collection at the University of Iowa was carved in 1972 by the Anang artist Thomas Chukwu. It was collected by the scholar Jill Salmons, who sold it to a faculty member at Iowa, who in turn gave it to the art museum in 1991. The image was “invented” based on a photograph of a female snake charmer from Samoa who worked in a German circus early in this century. The photograph made its way to Africa, whence it was sent to India to be reproduced in great numbers, which were shipped back to Africa to serve as images of the spirit. Mamy Wata is conceived of as a white woman, with long straight hair, often with snakes, which are symbols of fertility, and often with a fish’s tail, perhaps in reference to mermaids as the figureheads of 19th century European sailing ships. She is the embodiment of wealth and well-being."

9. From
"Mamy Wata mask, Bwa peoples, village of Boni, Burkina Faso, 1983. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The presence of Mamy Wata, a spirit from the swamps and lagoons of the Niger Delta, in the dry, dusty plains of West Africa is a testament to the constant flow of ideas, as well as goods and people, from one part of Africa to another, spreading patterns of belief and the art forms that serve to communicate them. The image has spread across the continent, and is now ubiquitous in sub-Saharan Africa. Her presence among the Bwa is evidence of their willingness to adopt any new idea that will help them deal with the challenges of life in a difficult environment."

WARNING: The sculptures of Mami Wata are topless.
Example #1: Mami Wata Art Exhibit on VOA's In Focus

TV2Africa, Published on May 26, 2009

The National Museum of African Art exhibits the African water goddess known as Mami Wata in Washington, D.C.

Example #2: MASKS OF THE NUNA PEOPLE Burkina Faso

mirekkocur, Published on Jul 13, 2010

Wroclaw BRAVE Festival 2010

Example #3: African Art: The Masks of the Bonde Family in Boni Perform, 2007

Christopher Roy, Published on Jan 24, 2011

On a market day in the Bwa village of Boni, in central Burkina Faso, West Africa a group of masks perform, including the great plank masks called nwantantay, the leper, hyena, dwarf, antelope, and bush buffalo.

Example #4: Burkina Faso Mask Dance 1

Tony McGowan, Published on Nov 15, 2016

Scenes from a mask dance festival in Boromo, Burkina Faso around 2005.

Bwa Masks of Leaves and of Wood

Christopher Roy, Published on Oct 16, 2017

The Bwa people of Burkina Faso carve masks of wood and fashion masks of leaves to represent the spiritual beings that watch over them and their families. Young men repair and repaint the masks and repair the fiber costumes. The masks appear in performances in the southern Bwa villages, accompanied by male and female initiates.

This concludes Part II of this series on the meanings of colors in traditional African cultures.

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