Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Baby Eats Tattoo!

When Mum was in town for the Holidaze, I dragged her along on baby-visiting rounds, thus ensuring that there would be at least one individual to feign interest in feeding and sleep schedules, someone who could be trusted not to drop said babies on their soft heads. (It's also a cheap way to give her the baby fix I sure ain't providing.)

First off was a friend who'd inexplicably given birth to a fat-cheeked Chinese baby who grunts a lot (inexplicable because Mom is of South Indian descent and Dad is Anglo - and neither grunts much). But, as the little girl is less than 8 weeks old, there's hope that melanin, that tricky stuff, will kick in. 

Next up was a sister Igbo/Anglo-European whose technically quarter-Igbo daughter is all Igbo. That is, she wants to walk before she can sit; she wants to have that over there; she won't give up. From the moment I walked into the place, Li'l Igbo couldn't take her button eyes off me, forgoing even The Breast to watch me over her shoulder. 

Once she got close, Li'l Igbo grabbed my two red wrist strings (a Senhor do Bonfim fita from my trip to Bahia this summer, and a Buddhist sai sin from an event with Alice Walker & Jack Kornfield) and yanked me to her. She then proceeded to try to gnaw my tattoo off my wrist. 

Now, her mum is not one of those obsessive anti-bacterial parents who thinks the world will come to an end if her child comes in contact with, well, the world. Fortunate for me, as the tot kept launching herself off her mum's lap and onto my arm, mouth open. Now, granted, the tattoo is rather delicious-looking, but consider this…

Though nearly every traditional society thinks my tattoo is theirs, it’s actually Igbo. I (along with the famous Nsukka Group of artists) have long been a fan of uli art, the temporary painting done by Igbo women for auspicious occasions on their bodies and buildings. In some regions of Igboland, women made body stamps by carving designs in bamboo, and in the absence of a trained free-hand uli artist, I decided to use an old stamp design.

Traditional artists used the 5 pigments readily available: black from charcoal or the uli plant itself; red from the camwood tree; yellow from soil or tree bark; white from clay; and indigo from uli seeds or laundry bluing. As yellow and white tat ink wouldn’t show on my skin, I ended up with a red, blue and black tattoo, the colors ordered to evoke the Igbo philosophy of duality (more on this in my forthcoming memoir).

And though I got the tattoo (and personalized uli stationary created by book artist Shari DeGraw) to heal my chi (spirit double), who missed out on the traditional birth rituals and planting of a natal tree, my young Nigerian sister was shocked at my “devilish” markings (thanks, British missionaries!). On the other hand, my elderly, extremely-proper, extremely-Christian stepmother was mesmerized. During my last visit to Nigeria, she kept grabbing and caressing my wrist. “So beautiful,” she'd say, fingers trembling. “It reminds me of my mother back in the village.”

So, gnaw on, Li'l New World Igbo!

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