Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Scarifications and Tattoos

Doctor Ellis’book ''Tattoing the world'' made me think about other forms of tattooing the skin which are scarifications or cicatrisations. Those ways of tatooing the skin are very popular in some Africans societies. Actually, last weekend I went to Canada for a burial. Over there, I was hosted by a Nigerian family and we went to several African shops in order to buy food. In one of the grocery store, I noticed a lady with scars on her cheeks but I did not really payed attention and just thought that those scars might have been accidental. Then we went to another store and I noticed a man with three parallel scars on each cheeks, and another one again. This aroused my curiosity and I thought that those scars must be a special mark for those Africans since I’ve read about mutilations and similar subjects in some books. I wanted to ask my Nigerian friends more information but I forgot because of the course of events. Back to the US, I decided to do some research about this form of tatooing the skin and found out interesting patterns on this website Scarifications are often made with a sharp knife or a razor. In order to soothe the pain, oil, flour or healing herbs are applied on the scars. Like the malu for women from the Pacific, scarifications have a particular meaning for women who get them. They have an aesthetic function since the scars they get on their hips and buttocks is supposed to ‘‘accentuate the erotic and sensual aspects of these parts of the female body.’’ They are often added after the first menstruations, childbirth or the breastfeeding period and symbolize the courage displayed through those periods. Thus, the body becomes an object of art, a map with different kinds of reliefs.
Like tattoos in the Pacific, those scars also tell about the social rank of the one having them. We can read page 11 : ‘‘…traditional motifs give the tattoo bearer a social standing place.’’ Like the tattoo, those scarification ‘‘call for a history based on orality’’p 10 and ‘‘ can convey lineage and clan history without recording the names of individuals.’’ It is true that African scarifications are not as elaborated as Pacific tattoos but their pattern can indicate from which tribe an individual is, and refer to a rich ancestral history and culture. There is also the idea that if one does not have any scarification, he or she is treated as a misfit or coward. A similar idea is found in Pacific culture regarding the tattoo. Actually, tattooing the skin whether with a scar or with ink, testifies that the individual is part a of a community. Thus, both scarifications and tattoos are to be read as scripts telling about a collective identity. But at the same time, Lacan points out that the tattoo and by extension the scarification ‘‘inaugurates the subject’’. The tattoo is the first signifier which makes the individual aware of his or her subjectivity because the individual realizes that he/she is different from this mark that was added to him/her. (p14)
I found very interesting to meet those Africans in Canada, outside their cultural context. Like O’Conell’s tattoos that traveled, those scarifications have also traveled. As we have seen, those scarifications have particular meanings, but they also involve the meaning or interpretation that others give them. As underlined in the book p 15 : ‘‘it depends upon whose bodies or faces they adorn and in what situations those bodies or faces are viewed. The same patterns that make one fully human in a Pacific community have been viewed as inhuman in a European context.’’ Further, the author talks about a ‘‘cultural adaptation that occurs in both travelers and hosts.’’ For instance, as mentioned earlier, when I saw those scarifications at first I thought that they were accidental and I must confess that it quite scared me because I did not think that it was cultural. However, by doing some research, I came to appreciate the beauty and meaning of those scarifications. I think that when considered in their cultural context, things are usually more appreciated. It also made me understand the reaction of the Americans who saw O’Connell with his tattoos for the first time.
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