Among the brushes and paints is a small plaque with photographs of a tribal group from Sudan known as the South-East Nuba. The sign uses not only the photographs, but also the words of Leni Reifenstahl, a German filmmaker and documentary photographer. The sign uses an excerpt from her 1976 book, The People of Kau, as a history lesson into this particular culture’s use of paints on their face and bodies. Though over thirty years old, the text still resonates deeply with those seeking out information on the world beyond. Reifenstahl's excerpt, entitled The Art of Masking, can be read below.
The most conspicuous and interesting peculiarity of the South-East Nuba is their art of face- and body-painting. Many tribes in the world wear paint, but none has brought this form of personal embellishment to such a pitch of artistic perfection.
The South-East Nuba have an exceptional gift of imagination and feeling for graphic design. Even modern artists are inspired with awe and admiration by the way in which they attune one colour with another and combine ornaments, lines and stylized figures into harmonious unity. Their mode of facial and physical decoration, which contains elements of both classical and modern painting, springs from the very fount of true art. It has escaped investigation until now and will always remain a mystery.
Except during the months devoted to work in the fields, the South-East Nuba, paint and adorn themselves daily. Every “mask” is a new creation, and some are changed twice in a single day. These painting have only a small measure of ritual significance, usually apparent from the wearer’s choice of ground color. For instance, the rich black which the Nuba consider the most beautiful of all colours may only be used by their best fighters, though this applies only when the entire body is painted black. Anyone can use black pigment for linear work.
The fundamental purpose of body-painting is to enhance the wearer’s appearance. Each villager strives to outdo his neighbors. Some Nuba are more talented that others, but the majority possesses their special aptitude. They use paint to accentuate their best features, facial and physical, and conceal or divert attention from blemishes. Some of them try to enlarge their eyes by shading the surrounds or stressing them with lines and circles. If they paint two halves of the face and body asymmetrically, their unerring artistic sense impels them to resolve the asymmetry into perfect harmony by means of appropriate lines and shapes – a technique in which they excel.
The NUba wash themselves thoroughly before applying paint. The face and body are denuded of hair, to which pigments will not adhere, and then oiled because only oily skin enables them to stick. Great care must be taken to avoid excessive oiling, which would cause colors to smear and run. The pigments, which are finely pulverized, must be dry. Ground-colours are applied with the hands until the surface of the skin is coated. Lines and patterns are then drawn on the face and body with a small stick. Some of the Nuba fashion stamps out of leather or wood and imprint their bodies with them.
The raw material for their pigments is of local provenance. Black they get from powdered charcoal, white from shells found in the dry river-bed and ground to dust, though white limestone is also obtainable in a few places. The main source of the yellow and ochre shades, down to and including the red which the Nuba use most frequently of all, is an underground cave of soft stone only a few miles from Kau. Red is extracted by heating, because some of the rock contains ferrous oxide. Blues has only been in use for a few years. This is the one pigment the Nuba obtain from the Arab traders, who also supply mirrors which many of them now own. Before this, friends used to paint each other – as they still do when decorating their backs. Face and body take roughly half an hour each to paint during the daily ‘toilette,’ which naturally includes the hair as well. Hair-styles are ritually significant, being modified according to age-group and social status. The colour and embellishment of the hair, on the other hand, are matters of personal taste and have purely aesthetic significance. Only a kadundor (knife-fighter) may shave off two wedge-shaped patches tapering from the temples to the back of the head, but the white feathers sported by many fighters may also be worn by youths who have yet to take part in a contest.
One unusual feature is that, unlike most other primitive peoples, these Nuba do not identify themselves with the animals they draw on their bodies. If a Nuba adorns his body with a leopard-skin pattern, for example, it does not imply that he feels like a leopard, simply that the pattern gives him pleasure and in his estimation, enhances his appearance. To quote Professor Faris once again, the main function of these drawings and decorations is not symbolic. Their purpose is to accentuate the beauty of the body. The South-East Nuba view their art only in relation to their bodies. The body is regarded by them as the consummation of Nuba art. As a symbol, the body represents perfect beauty and is their medium of artistic expression.