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History of Traditional Body Art In Nigeria

Updated on March 19, 2010

Body painting is an old traditional art in the Northern heart of Nigeria

Dating back to pre-colonial times among the Hausa, Fulani, Kanuri and other people of Northern Nigeria, this fine art remains popular to this day. A northern Nigerian bride-to-be maybe all dressed up, looking very enchanting in her wedding outfit, but her dressing, no matter how elegant or expensive, will not be deemed complete unless and until her hands and legs are painted with the locally made liquid fluid known as henna or lalli. It is also mandatory for the bride’s friends to paint their hands and feet as well.

Although the act of Lalli or Henna decoration remains not only within northerin Nigerian women as this same act has been practised between Islamic countries and related to culture of other non-Islamic countries like India and the rest. But research still has it that henna body decoration came from nothern African countries while spread to other regions and countries due to slave trade in the pre-colonial time.

For many northern women, using henna or lalli is an Islamic alternative to western nail polish. This intriguing practise has made people ask questions about this art of body painting and the coloured extract used in creating it.

What is this beautiful artistic decoration made of?

Lalli or Henna as it is commonly called is a plant/flower or back extract which is mixed with some other ingredients like lemon juice and cloves and used to beautify the skin and fingers in artistically wrought patterns. The designs are mainly of different plants and flowers, but the bride is allowed to choose whatever design she wants from the local design dialogue.

Henna or Lalli and how it relates to modern tattoos

Call it traditional tattoo and you will not be wrong because lalli decoration plays the same role as its modern variant beautifying the body. However unlike the permanent modern tattoos which are able to last for years or sometimes forever, lalli designs are meant to last just for few days, weeks or months depending on the amount of ingredients used and how often the painting comes in contact with water.

Where will you mostly find Henna or Lalli decorations on a Hausa or a nothern woman?

Hausa and Fulani women are expected to adorn lalli at all times to be considered desirable. Young women are expected to draw designs on their palms, the back of hand, arms underneath and on top of the feet, while the older ones could paint there fingers, palms and feet but are not mandated to wear designs always.

The process

According to Halimat Rashida who makes a living from lalli painting, the lalli designs she says, are indeed all about plants and flowers; what stands a designer from other is the creative combination of plants and flower patterns to create fresh designs.

Unlike the modern tattoo where needles, tracing outlines and machines are used, doing the lalli painting is different. First one has to get the mixture ready after which it is out in a nylon bag with a tiny hole made at the tip or any appropriate narrow-tipped receptacles. When pressed the lalli comes out into the desired patterns under the artistic guidance of the decorator. When this is completed, the lalli client will have to washes off with ordinary water. At this point the design is not visible until, a cotton wool deeped in hydrogen and water solution is used to clean the decorated area. It is after this process that the design will begin to show.


These days, northern women are not the only one painting their hands and feet with lalli. Women from other parts of Nigeria have joined the lalli body decorating wagon, thus recreating a traditional art into a contemporary fashion statement.



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