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Nkasi Ali: Cocoyam Tattoos as Expression

Updated: Jun 13, 2020

One of the prominent forms of body art amongst the Igbo in the ages past was Ede Ala. Also known in other dialects as ‘Nkasi Ali’, this art form is characterized by the application of curvilinear tattoo designs around the neck, back, breasts, and belly. The ink from which these designs are made is produced from the ground bulbs of the ede ala plant, a local tubar which is not to be confused with the edible ede-bu-ji (cocoyam). The bulbs are ground on large, smooth stones which are designated strictly for this purpose and have strict regulations and laws which govern every stage of production from grinding to application on the wearer’s skin. Ede Ala tattoos are strictly applied on and administered by women. They could be worn by women of all ages and were typically sported on major festivals and occasions. The arduous and painful processes of grinding ink and administering these designs were undertaken under the calmness of night, due to the immense amount of concentration they demanded. Women who participated in this process were expected to have abstained from sexual intercourse for that entire day. Along with menfolk, other women who were “ritually unclean” due to menstruation were also forbidden from appearing within the vicinity of this activity, so as to avoid defiling the ink with impurities. As was the norm, the wearer would be toppless and the ink designs would be drawn onto her skin using a thin, flat-edged utensil known as an ‘owa’. Over time, the ink would begin to painfully expand, set, and coagulate as it sinks into the epidermis, where it would remain for up to a year. Ede Ala empowered female artists to express their creativity and model their realities through the creation of unique patterns, shapes, and designs for aesthetic purposes. As can be observed, the designs on this young girl were fashioned to mimic a Western-styled t-shirt—an amusing spectacle in an era when nudity was an everdyay component of village life. #Igbohistory Photo: Herbert Cole, 1966


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