African lip plugs
Mask, Makonde people, Tanzania
Wooden lip plate, Central Africa
Aluminium lip plug, Karamojong people, Uganda
Pottery lip plate, Mursi people, Ethiopia
Lip ornaments – rings, plugs or plates inserted into the lip or labrets worn just beneath the bottom lip – are not unique to Africa; they were worn for thousands of years among the peoples of Mesoamerica, northwest America and the Balkans. Elite Kaiapo men of Brazil can still be found wearing saucer-like lip plates but it is chiefly among the women of certain African tribes that they survive in significant modern usage. A hole is sliced into the lower (or sometimes upper) lip and a small ornament inserted. After the hole heals around the plate, it is removed and is replaced by a larger one, gradually stretching the hole.
The purpose of lip plugs is a little unclear. The women of some tribes, such as the Kichepo of southern Sudan, were said to have started wearing them as self-protection to deter Arab slavers. In the mid-19th century, David Livingstone is said to have asked a Malawi chief about them to which the chief answered in amused surprise that they were for beauty, since men had beards and women did not. The Lobi women of the Ivory Coast and Ghana and the Kirdi women of Cameroon wear lip pugs to protect against evil spirits that enter the body via the mouth. For others, lip plates were a status symbol, their size relative to a woman's social standing or wealth.
Among the Makonde people of Tanzania, lip plates are considered such an integral part of personal decoration that they are sometimes incorporated into human face masks. This example is painted red and has real hair eyelashes. It represents, as do all Makonde masks, a spirit or ancestor (known as midimu). Masks like this were used most powerfully used in initiation ceremonies as expressions of continuity, fear, and morality. In life only married women among the Makonde may wear a lip-plug.
This large wooden lip plate is from Central Africa, possibly Chad, where such ornaments up to the size of a tea plate were worn in the top lip. A smaller one was worn in the bottom lip. The resulting 'beak-like' effect is said to emulate the bills of sacred birds such as the spoonbill or broadbill.
This decorated pottery lip plate was worn by a Mursi woman from Ethiopia. The retention of large pottery and wooden lip plates among the Mursi has made them a prime attraction for tourists. However, for the Mursi, they are not just worn for show; such ornaments are an expression of social adulthood and fertility or, as one scholar has put it, "a bridge between the biological self and the social self". Girls receive their first small lip plate around the age of 15 or 16 but it is up to them to decide how far to stretch the lip after that.