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Nudity in Africa: Re-visiting the Pre-Colonial and Colonial Times


It is not uncommon to hear modern Africans dismiss nudity, especially female nudity and semi-nudity as un-African and an import from the western part of the world. How true is the claim that nudity is foreign to African cultures?


Is nudity really a recent development brought about by colonization or has nudity always been a part of many African cultures?


A close look at history and close attention paid to African languages and semantics, art, and cultural practices, will help one realize quickly that nudity was in no way tied to morality in precolonial times. Not only is nudity not a recent development, nudity used to be and still is a significant part of many African cultures.

 

Nudity was appropriate and fashionable


Mangbetu-Congo Africa-From-the-book-Body-Decoration
Mangbetu - Congo Africa - From the book “Body Decoration”

Before the advent of colonialism, nudity used to be appropriate and even fashionable. Since many African countries often get hot, in these weathers, it was considered normal for men and women, especially young, unmarried women to dress in scanty clothing or leave parts of their bodies such as their chests bare. Nude art was also very popular as artist drew on bare bodies.

 

Nudity used to be symbolic


Women-of-Mioko-ca-1900
Women of Mioko ca 1900 culled from Wikipedia

Nudity in Africa, especially a woman’s nudity symbolizes many things. A woman’s naked body symbolizes fertility, life, and nature. It is why many sculptures, paintings, and carvings of African women often portray them fully nude or with barely any kind of clothing. The female breasts represent life since they are used to feed and nourish children, they also symbolize mortality given the changes that occur in a woman’s breasts as time passes. The vagina symbolizes a passage through which all humans came to life.

 

Nudity was sacred


Orisa-Ibeji
Orisa Ibeji Photo Credit: Ibeji art

Nudity was not always as sexualized as it is now. Nudity used to in fact be sacred. Nudity was and still is a form of spirituality. In some parts of Africa for instance, it is believed that a woman’s prayers or curses are more effective when she makes her proclamations while naked. Many times, when the images of deities and idols ar