Body Arts - Uli

Nigeria Map

Traditionally, the women of the Ibo people of Nigeria painted their bodies with patterns. They used a dye made from the seeds of uli plants that temporarily stained the skin black. This type of body decoration is known as uli painting. Uli designs refer to plants and animals; some are also based on objects used in ritual and everyday life.

This painting is of a woman covered with uli designs that were worn by girls who had just left a ‘fattening room’. Fattening rooms are where young women were secluded in preparation for marriage. The period of seclusion usually lasted about three months. During this time young women were instructed on sexual, religious, and Uli painting, Nigeria
Uli painting, Nigeria;
1972.24.172
domestic matters and taught how to be good wives and mothers. They were also fed rich fatty foods supplied by their families and sometimes by their future husbands. They were also kept sedentary in order to gain weight, because fat is a sign of health, wealth, and fertility. When girls were ready to leave the fattening room their bodies were painted with uli so that they could be presented to the community at the height of their beauty.

 

Uli designs emphasize the girl’s best features and highlight her physical strength. Physical strength was important because it meant the girl was able to work hard for her husband and family. The designs are often concentrated around the neck because a long straight neck was considered beautiful and strong. They also draw attention to the pubic hair, which is a sign of strength and fertility. When uli is drawn on the legs it emphasizes beauty and strength. Men were only painted occasionally with much simpler designs than those shown here.

Uli dye is made from uli seed pods. Before uli is applied the body hair is shaved off to make a smooth surface. Then a red powder is rubbed on to the skin. This red powder stops the skin from sweating so that when the paint is applied the dye will not smudge. The uli designs are then drawn freehand on to the body using metal tools.When the dye is first applied it is a greenish colourbut overnight it turns black and the designs stand out clearly against the red Cushion cover, Nigeria
Cushion cover, Nigeria; 1972.24.16
powdered skin. When the dye has dried, oil is applied to the skin to make it soft and shiny. The uli dye remains visible for about four days.

When this drawing was made in the 1930s and 1940s, Ibo women often wore uli painting on everyday occasions as well as during important festivals. At the same time missionary schools were discouraging women from painting uli on their bodies and instead taught them to embroider the designs on textiles. Uli artists were asked by missionaries to record their designs on paper. These were then used to make templates for the embroideries.

Further Resources

Body Art Collections at the Pitt Rivers: A website exploring the Body Art collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Here you can find out more about the objects on display in the Museum, about the themes of the displays, and about the people who made and used the objects.

Further Reading

Detailed information about each of the objects on display is provided in the Body Arts Gallery.

Sources

ADAMS, SARAH, ‘Praise Her Beauty Well: Ùrì from the Body to Cloth’, in Call and Response: Journeys into African Art, New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery (2000), pp. 9–44.

WILLIS, LIZ, ‘Uli Painting and the Igbo World View’, in African Arts, Vol XXIII, no 1 (1999), pp. 62-67.

The objects featured in this introductory guide can be found in the following location:
Lower Gallery (First Floor) L46B

Introductory guide compiled by:
Jennifer Peck, Project Assistant, DCF Redisplay Project ,2002

Introductory guide revised by:Uli
Bryony Reid, Senior Project Assistant (Interpretation), DCF What’s Upstairs? October 2005

Download print version of the Body Arts Uli introductory guide
(to view pdf files Acrobat Reader is required)