It's more than 'face paint': the various meanings behind cultural makeup
June 3, 2020
Suri Girls by Sergio Carbajo

The various cultures of the world are rich with different traditions, insignias and lifestyles. Different groups of people around the world often utilise paints and makeup for reasons such as: protection, religious celebration and clarifying identity. The praxis of cultural groups is unique to each of them, but all of them are telling of the world’s diversity, and how cultural makeup is significant in all of these practices. These cultural components are often appropriated, with the meanings behind them stripped.

Boy dressed as Krishna by Sachin Polassery


In the vibrant and diversified continent of Africa, facial makeup is used by many of the approximately 3000 tribes existing within it. Within some of their visual traditions, different facial patterns and signifiers often relate to age-related status and ranking, for others to differentiate between a leader, elder and younger member of the tribe. As they age and rise amongst the ranks, their facial makeup changes and becomes increasingly more intricate. Some are decorated in certain ways to intimidate opponents or competitors. Within the Suri and Mursi tribes of Omo Valley, Ethiopia, women are often given lip plates to highlight their beauty. They decorate their faces and bodies with naturally obtained pigments and adorn themselves in flowers, leaves and horns. Photographer Hans Silvester pins this adornment down to ‘another type of fashion’, a natural one, which is achieved beyond the handles of mainstream culture.

Left: Child in Omo Valley by Hans Silvester, Right: Man dressed a goddess during Angalamman by Robin George

One of the most colourful of them all, the Angalamman festival in the small town Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu is an extremely vibrant and expressive celebration. Devotees to the‘Guardian God’ paint their faces to replicate the goddess, in the same way that the Sadhus of Nepal do, and honour her existence. In the act of ‘Kaliamkam’, many are painted in bright colours, with intricate patterns which all symbolise their love and respect for the goddess who will in turn protect them from harm.The makeup is often hidden until devotees arrive at the temple, to reveal their appearances to the goddess herself. Some even pierce lemons into their bodies as the ultimate form of devotion.  

In northern parts of Kerala, in India, many take part in the celebration called 'Vishnumoorthy Theyyam'. A 'Theyyam' is a ritual indigenous to Kerala, and is a unique visual art form in this area. Devotees to Vishnumoorthy dress in extravagant costumes and paint their faces in ravishing makeup to replicate the God. Vishnu is the God of protection, and many worship those who paint to appear as Him, because they believe it is a living embodiment of Vishnu Himself. They paint in a bright orange colour, with black details. The makeup is alarming and bright, so that those partaking in the divine makeover are recognised as the God. To some, it may be somewhat 'scary', but that is the impact partakers must have as they are, after all, incarnating God.

Man painted as Vishumoorthy (Wikimedia)

Día de los Muertos, also known as Day of the Dead, is a celebration, cultivated in Mexico, which celebrates the lost lives of loved ones. Another highly appropriated art form, people dress their faces in intricate and elaborate designs, often replicating skulls. The skulls are made to look beautiful and painted with smiles to ‘laugh at death itself’ and transform a day of mourning into a day of celebration of those lives. It honours these lives and brings the sadness away from the memory of them.

Woman dressed for Day of the Dead by Mucio Martinez


These are just a handful of the manifold representations of cultural makeup around our colourful world. Each of them adds a dose of culture and define our beautiful differences and what makes people special. These practices and traditions should be protected from appropriation, because of the importance they have to each of these cultures, and we should by no means trivialise them for the sake of beauty. Because this is their beauty.