Lip Plugs

Lip plugs, also known as labrets, have been worn for thousands of years by the women of several different African social groups. Lip plugs are considered essential to the beauty of some African women and are viewed as having protective value to others. To prepare for marriage, young women in Ethiopia insert a flat, circular plug or disk into a slit in their lower lip. The women make their lip plugs out of clay and color it with charcoal or red ocher, a reddish type of clay. Clay lip plugs are hardened in a fire in much the same way as pottery. Women in northern Kenya wear coiled brass wire lip plugs decorated with red beads. Others wear wooden lip plugs. Makololo women of Malawi slit their upper lip and insert plates called pelele as a mark of beauty.

To accommodate a large lip plug, women insert successively larger disks to stretch the slit in their lip over the course of about six months. The larger the lip plug a woman's lip can hold, the larger the dowry, or traditional gifts, her family expects to receive for her hand in marriage. Because lip plugs make talking difficult, women only wear their lip plugs in the company of men, but they remove them to eat and sleep or when they are only in the company of women.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Blauer, Ettagale. African Elegance. New York: Rizzoli, 1999.

Kennett, Frances, and Caroline MacDonald-Haig. Ethnic Dress. New York: Facts on File, 1994.

Blauer, Ettagale. African Elegance. New York: Rizzoli, 1999.

Kennett, Frances, and Caroline MacDonald-Haig. Ethnic Dress. New York: Facts on File, 1994.

Makololo Pelele

An Indian man wearing a lip plate similar to those worn in African cultures. Reproduced by permission of © Reuters NewMedia Inc./CORBIS.

Masks

^Decorative masks were an important part of the ceremonies practiced by people living throughout Africa. Such ceremonies included initiation rituals for young people to become members of a social group, rituals to enforce a society's rules, and religious occasions. Masks covered a person's face and were designed to represent ancestors or to symbolize mythical beings. Masks were only one element of ceremonial garb, however. With masks, dancers or performers would also wear whole costumes to assume the identity and powers of the spirit, ancestor, or deity represented.

Carved from wood and decorated with grasses, feathers, or animal skins, masks were painted with intricate designs of many colors. Unlike body painting, tattooing, and scarification, masks were designed not to beautify but to look dramatic and imposing. The faces carved on masks often have distorted features. Among the Pende people in the present-day country of the Democratic Republic

An Indian man wearing a lip plate similar to those worn in African cultures. Reproduced by permission of © Reuters NewMedia Inc./CORBIS.

of the Congo, the bulging eyes, giant ears, and long nose of the Kipoko mask symbolized the chief s ability to see, hear, and smell sorcery and evil doings. The mask's small mouth represented the chief's ability to hold his tongue to keep hasty words from leading him into trouble. Although many in Africa have converted to religions such as Christianity, which do not use masked ceremonies, some social groups continue to use masks that resemble those worn by their ancestors thousands of years ago.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Groning, Karl. Body Decoration: A World Survey of Body Art. New York: Vendome Press, 1998.

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