Speaking Bodies: Documenting Uli Body Designs of the Igbo of Nigeria

By Tracie Chima Utoh-Ezeajugh, Dr Emmanuel Ebekue, Dr Ngozi U. Emeka-Nwobia, Akpa Peter Emenike | 15 October 2021

Uli, the most significant culture of body decoration among the Igbo of South East Nigeria, is the art of decorating the body (and in some instances, the scalp and hair) in patterns and motifs with liquid juices extracted from Uli pods or fruits. The designers, who are usually women, are central to the whole process of Uli body designing. They are artistically and creatively knowledgeable in the use and application of Uli, and are adept in creating free-hand motifs and patterns on their clients’ bodies with sharp pointed instruments dipped in Uli liquid. This requires a great deal of artistic proficiency and manipulation in order to draw these patterns which range from the arrangement of ordinary lines and dots, to very intricate and complicated motifs without smudging the designs. Uli in its indigenous form is however, facing the risk of extinction, as many have abandoned the traditional body design for modern make-up. The Uli design tradition practiced by designers, celebrants and spectators in the Eremokata rite-of-passage ceremony of Ezza Effium, Nigeria, represents one of the few surviving design traditions that bear very close resemblance to the autochthonous Uli design practice of the Igbo. Using the interpretative, descriptive and narrative approach to video documentary and photography, this project documents the process and product of Uli body designs used in the Eremokata rite-of-passage ceremony/festival for young male adults and betrothed girls. The documentation captures Uli trees/shrubs, pods and seeds; the preparation of Uli dye; the designing sessions for body, hair and complimentary adornments; and the public exhibition of Uli designs by celebrants and spectators during the Eremokata festival. The emphasis is on the art and skills of the indigenous Uli designers; the materials and instruments of design, the design procedure and the Uli body designs.


The specific goals of this project are to document the indigenous Uli body design tradition and Uli knowledge system of the Igbo of South East Nigeria in digital video and photo format before it goes into extinction; to preserve the indigenous skills, materials and motifs/patterns of the Igbo Uli body design/body art as a tangible system of African material Knowledge and cultural heritage; to document the design process and use of Uli body designs in the Eremokata rite-of- passage ceremony of the Ezza Effium community, as being representative of the indigenous Uli body design tradition of the Igbo of South East Nigeria; to produce a documentation on Uli body designs which will encourage a synergy between traditional Uli designers and modern Uli designers; to ignite research interest in Uli and other traditional body designs and encourage the universal distribution of indigenous artistic knowledge; to place Uli plants in the milieu of ecological knowledge systems and to produce digital assets on Uli body designs for the EMKP repository and the local repository in Nigeria, for universal consumption through open access.


PI:

Tracie Chima Utoh-Ezeajugh

Collaborators:
Emmanuel Ebekue, Dr. Ngozi U. Emeka-Nwobia, Akpa Peter Emenike

Location of Research:
Nigeria

 

Top Banner Image: Eremokata rite-of-passage ceremony celebrant being designed by an Uli designer. Photo: Tracie Chima Utoh-Ezeajugh