Tag Archives: Living in Bondage

Uli on my mind.

I have always regretted that drawing uli patterns fell out of fashion.  It annoys me when I consider the rather flimsy reason they did, the same as a lot of traditional Igbo stuff; because the church disapproved and thought it fetishistic.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Igbo women often wore uli painting on everyday occasions as well as during important festivals. At the same time missionary schools were discouraging women from painting uli on their bodies and instead taught them to embroider the designs on textiles. Uli artists were asked by missionaries to record their designs on paper. These were then used to make templates for the embroideries.

From here.

Now a lot of scholars suggest that uli was not really a mode of communication, not in the way nsibidi was. It’s supposed to be more linear and abstract, a way to beautify spaces as opposed to nsibidi’s ideographic/logographic  – i.e. used to transmit concepts or ideas – form. But maybe in the process of getting ridding of the more-feared nsibidi (which was used in its sacred forms by the literate secret societies), it might also have come under attack.

Note, I use secret societies to mean titled and Leopard societies not Living in Bondage type scenarios. 

Recently I have become interested in finding as many designs as I can and in creating a few of my own. I toyed with the idea of getting the one from my grandfather’s mud walls made into a tattoo for my back.  I also briefly considered getting patterns tattooed on the soles of my feet but I do not fancy the thought of spending great amounts of money for something that would fade pretty quickly due to friction (walking around, wearing shoes, etc).

Sole tatPlus according to sources, it hurts like crazy.

As for putting it on my back or anywhere hidden like my bum, I am worried about it fading and/or the ink bleeding and how it will look on my skin when I am old and my bottom droops to the backs of my knees.

I think one of the things that is so beautiful about uli is the impermanence of it all. The dye fades after a few days so that you can draw an entirely fresh design on; one suited to the occasion or event, or even just one that takes your fancy. Tattoos do not afford me the same option.

Uli seems the way to go. Nsibisi is enjoying a resurgence so hopefully uli too will come off the better for it.  Thanks to people like the Nsukka Group and many other interested bodies and individuals, a lot of the designs are not lost. I reckon I will try out a few designs with henna and see how that works out. I’ll also try to find some camwood dye (African sandalwood) in some villages back East when I get to Nigeria and try out its reddish colour as well.

The front wall of my grandfather's compound, Ezelle, Oba. Use with permission.
The front wall of my grandfather’s compound with what looks like uli patterns; Ezelle, Oba. © Chikodili Emelumadu.
'Ugo n'acho nma' carved figure; ukpuru.tumblr.com.
‘Ugo n’acho nma’ carved figure; ukpuru.tumblr.com.