What Is in a Mark?

Femi Amogunla

Traditional facial marks have a significance for the faces that carry them, individuals that bear them and their communities. For some, it is a sign of identity; for others, it beautifies them; for yet some others, it creates a sense of belonging to certain communities. In Iseyin, Nigeria, for instance, one cannot become a king without the marks. Across Nigeria, different communities wear different traditional marks. Some of the marks have similar designs but bear different names. These marks have been passed from one generation to another.

The facial marking tradition has gone through several evolutions. Today, in several families, rather than mark all the children, only the first child is marked; in other families, instead of using the typical family’s pattern, they adopt a smaller design; while some families no longer mark children altogether. At a time when the practice is dwindling as a result of “civilisation” and prohibiting laws, “What is in a Mark?” archives a tradition that may soon be no more. The work asks: what does a mark mean? What does a facial mark mean for the community?

Among the Neni people of Anambra state, Nigeria, the tradition, called “Igbu-Ichi” is being re-enacted as art through the Nkadioka Festival. Yearly, there is re-enactment of the processes at the village square while also parading the last man in the community with the traditional mark.

Therefore, this body of work explores “Ila Oju” as called by the Yorubas and “Igbu-Ichi” as called by the people of Neni, capturing different kinds, examining their roots, relevance to the community and what it means to the bearer. Through the voices of my subjects, “What is in a Mark?” examines a past gone by and engages the future unknown while questioning the suitability or otherwise of the act.

Rasak Adewuyi (14)
Name of Facial Mark:
Pélé
“I do not know the name of the mark, I just know I have it. People use it to abuse me. A lot. I have also developed thick skin against this abuse. So once they abuse me, I tell them it is because they have no money in their house that is reason they cannot afford it. I love the mark the way it is and if someone comes with something today that could clean it, I will not take it. It has become me.”

Kehinde Rasaq (30)
Name of Facial Mark:
Ìsàlè Èkó
“I was marked when I was a baby but became conscious of the mark at age five. I wasn’t particularly happy when I first saw the mark. As I grew older, my hatred for the act became more pronounced largely because being the first child, I am the only person with this mark among my siblings. I am however getting used to it because now that I am aware my husband loves it.”

Ajibade Oyejide (34)
Facial mark name:
Ìlà Ondó
“I am not the first child but my parents still believed that I had to be marked. That is why I have this small one. Though it is called ‘Ila Ondo’, I am from Molete. It is people from our household that has chieftaincy right in the town. These days, the practice is almost gone into extinction. Before you see a child with this small type of mark on his face, let alone the really big ones, you will have to work really hard. While some believe that it adds to their beauty, I strongly do not believe that. A saying goes “B’aase w’aye pe a o ri, la ri; oogun ewa o se e se” which translates that “we are what we have been destined to look like, there is no medicine for beauty.” I will not mark my children for any reason so that they can claim anywhere they chose to claim in future because they do not have marks.”

Wasiu Ademola (39)
Name of Facial Mark:
Àbàjà
“I am the first born of my parents and the only one with this mark. It gives me a sense of pride that I am the only one that has it. So I have never felt bad about it. From what I heard, my father, who is now late, comes from Òyó, and his mother is from Ìséyìn. So my father needed to do something to prove to his mother that he loves her, he decided to give me this mark, which is the typical mark you will find on the faces of Iseyin peoplefour broken horizontal lines on each cheek as against the ones on the face of people from Òyó where I am originally fromthree unbroken horizontal lines on each cheek. The beards that is growing on the tribal mark is deliberate. It is not an attempt to conceal anything.”

Kolawole Balogun (40)
Name of Facial Mark:
Abaja of the Balogun’s Lineage
“You will see yourself that this is also different from other types of Abaja around. This particular one is basically from the household that takes on the chieftaincy title of Balogun in my town. I have lived with the mark all my life but the first rather sad experience of it that I had was in my university days when I looked around in a class of about 200 and I was the only person with marks. I felt really embarrassed. I have come to terms with the fact that whether you like it or not, whether it looks beautiful on you or not, these marks have come to stay. So, I do not blame my parent for giving me but I can never give it to my children.”

Abiodun Alhazan (41)
Name of Facial Mark:
Pélé
“I was at NYSC camp in Uyo and was the only one with marks in the whole camp. While at University of Ibadan, I saw people with marks every now and then, so the consciousness was not as intense until the NYSC days. When people wanted to address me, they will say the man with tribal marks and as time went by, I became an object of mischief. But before anyone ridicules me, I am already making jest of myself. Since I got back to the West, I have also discovered that the mark has accorded some sense of respect. My father was so popular in my town and had this same mark. People, those I have not seen before will see me and ask, are you from Iseyin? The son of ADO? This form of identification helps me a lot. People sometimes ask for permission to use their hands to trace the marks.”

Adefabi Akeem (42)
Name of Facial Mark:
Gòmbó
“My mark is an avenue to enlighten those who know nothing about traditional marks anywhere I find myself. For instance, while I was working in Port Harcourt, many people would look at me and do so with all their power. Some of them who have courage will ask how I come about the marks. I am always quick to tell them that in our place, it is usually one of the prerequisites of becoming a king or chief. Today, I can tell you that with time this custom will go into total extinction. I am very sure that my children will not give it to their children because they do not have it themselves and neither do I believe that when I am gone that the first thing they will remember me for is the mark. They will definitely remember other things.”

Lawal Adeniyi (56)
Name of Facial Mark:
Gòmbó
“Liking this mark or otherwise depends on the environment you find yourself. For instance, while in the Northern part of Nigeria, I just was not comfortable with it. And I was soon proven right. During the Sharia crisis, there was mass killing and people were only ready to open their doors to people of their own tribe. So everywhere I ran to, once people they saw my tribal mark, they immediately closed their doors. During a near death experience, as those chasing me were almost catching up with me, it was someone, who had the same mark as mine that quickly opened the door of his house for me to run into. I would have been killed, but in a strange land, my tribal mark saved me. I relocated back home after the crisis, at least back home where my marks do not segregate.”

Adebowale Ahmed (57)
Name of Facial Mark:
Àbàjà
“I am a typical Yoruba man. To be honest with you, I am not happy the way things are going on traditionally. When I hear people talk about stopping this important part of our culture, it saddens me. My mother is from the royal family of Aseyin. I lived in the palace then and I know how important this part of our culture is. Something that is as important as telling people where you are from is now being asked to be taken away from us and we are all happy about it? These days my children ask me: why don’t they have marks? I tell them that it is their mother. She herself has this mark but she kicked against marking the children. It is sad.”

Chief Lamidi Oluwole (63)
Name of Facial Mark:
Gòmbó
“Generally, traditional marks in Yoruba is synonymous with identity. In my family, Gòmbó is for males. Abaja is for females. For us in the family, the mark entitles us to chieftaincy title. It is a different ball game for the female folks as they cannot become chiefs. Theirs is largely about beauty. It beautifies them.”

Oyeleye Ajibade (70) Retired soldier
Name of Mark:
Pélé
“Imagine a situation where you have a household with many children, and to make the matters worse, some having some semblance. One needs something to show that this set of children belongs to A and and this, to B. That is what this beautiful part of tradition has helped us solve. You can see the one on my face has almost disappeared. Sometimes, it depends on whoever the marker is. Some mark it so deeply and others faintly. Irrespective of the name given to traditional marks, it is just a beautiful thing.”

Chief Odidika Chidolue (91)
Name of the Facial Mark:
Igbu Ichi
“I am happy with my marks. Everywhere I go, people want to know more about the marks, where I am from, who I am. And I tell them, I am Chief Odidika Chidolue from Neni, Anambra state. Today, the mark has attracted different people from all over the world to me, to my community, who want to know more about the practice.”

Muibat Oluwakemi Tijani (50)
Name of Facial Mark:
Pélè + Àbàjà = Àmì Olóolà
“I am from the family of Oloola, (traditional markers) and usually the kind of mark that they give us is unique – different ones on the two cheeks. The one I have on my right cheek is called pélé, is different from the one I have on my left cheek, which is Abaja. So each time I take pictures, either at an event or just doing it with my phone, I must ensure that I take the two cheeks because I cherish them. My father no longer practices the profession largely because people no longer do it. People now prefer to have marks on their stomach than on their faces. I love my marks. They make me beautiful. People attest to it too.”

Felicia Ajibola (Nee Ajibade) (43), Ayokomi Ajibade (68) – Daughter and Mother
Name of Daughter’s Facial Mark:
Abaja
“I became conscious of the mark while I was 13. Then I was comfortable with it because that was what was in vogue then. When I was about 20, I visited Lagos it became more obvious, I just could not deny the fact that I am from Iseyin in Oyo state Nigeria. The mark is there to say it. From that point on, I became really shy. I am old now and I can say I no longer think about it. I have come to accept it.”

Name of the Mother’s Facial mark: Gòmbó
“The traditional mark on my face was solely for identification, ours was a home of many children. So asides the fact that my own parent had this mark on their faces, it was also for them to put it on our faces for identification – to avoid confusion. I remember an instance where my father once said ‘Mi o le ma wa ma wa omo ti o nila kiri’ meaning “he has no luxury of time to start looking for a child that has no means of identification.” But I honestly would want to say it was because there was no civilisation then, so giving your children marks was not strange. It is a different ball game entirely today, hardly will any child be willing to allow you put marks on their faces.”

Re-enactment of Igbu Ichi

Igbu-Ichi is a traditional craft connected to a cultural system; executed by Nwadiokas, itinerant traditional herbalists cum artists who learned the craft through apprenticeship. Also built around this art is a social welfare and a legal system that ensures balance in the communal society. Every December 31, the Nkadioka Festival holds in Neni, Anambra state. During the festival, there is a re-enactment of “igbu-ichi” the art and act, only that the marks are not given. It is an essential component to becoming a chief in the community. It is also an act of remembrance, of celebration, and perhaps a renaissance of an art that is on the verge of being forgotten. Through this performance, a younger generation, unaware of the tradition, is connected with the dying art.

Femi Amogunla is a multimedia artist who works with stories, photography and film; he specialises in documentary and portrait photography. He first studied English language at the Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria before a summer training in photography at the Africa Artists Foundation in Lagos. He is focused on creating experiences through his works. He sees photography as a form of expression which gives him a better understanding of the world. His works show the importance of situating African stories in global conversations. He tells stories with pictures and words; through pictures, he reveals the unsaid and with words, the unsaid gets a voice. With each project, he aspires to be true to his subjects such that his works draw the audience into the subject’s world. His work “Ibadan, City of Firsts” was exhibited during ICAF Lagos 2018. In 2018, he had his first solo photography exhibition titled “Masks and Masquerades” in Abuja. His work “Three Siblings who Beat 100” was part of “Grey is the New Pink” exhibition at the Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt Germany.