Colors are very important in nature. Animals and humans use them for communicate with others living beings as if it were a language.
Living beings on this planet are dressed to suit the occasion. An entire code of colours is used to send messages to others, a sophisticated system of communication which everyone tries to employ to their advantage.
Strident messages of love that may be intercepted by dangerous eyes. Clan markings, bright colours inviting you to eat them, or warning you to steer clear.
Humans too, adopt colour as a means of communication. Since the beginning of time, we have used them to express our emotions and feelings. In all cultures, there are colours of love, of joy and of death.
Even in the most advanced societies, colours form an important part of our identity, both as individuals and as a group.
The tribes of Papua New Guinea made a sex ritual to find a couple. They paint their bodies, dance and exhibit their naked bodies in a ceremony known as Tanimet. The Papuans, like so many other peoples on earth, adopted the language of colours from observing nature, above all the birds.
This is a ceremony called Tanimet. It is held in certain Indonesian tribes to introduce and pair up unmarried individuals of one village with those of another.
And, naturally, colour plays a central role – this time a cultural development, rather than a genetic one as in the case of the birds. Identical methods with the same aim in mind.
The master of ceremonies or matchmaker will witness the forming of couples, which must be accepted by both parties. As all the inhabitants of a village are related, the men have to find wives in other villages, in order to avoid endogamy. They look at each other and take each other hands, mingling and gradually defining their preferences. The ceremony can last days or even weeks.
On the other side of the world, in the jungles of Venezuela, these tribe women are collecting the fruit of the tree they call onoto. They extract the seeds, from which they make a red dye which is very important for them.
They are going to paint themselves, ready to hunt. This tribe have always surprised anthropologists with their vast culture based on a symbolic universe. They ritualise everything, and in particular their relations with animals and plants.
Through ritual paintings, hunters believe they will attract certain animals and scare off others. In their mythical universe, hunting is a kind of seduction, in which the men pair up with animal females by mutual agreement.
Up to now, we have seen how the language of colours conveys messages and helps in different situations where communication is necessary. But wherever there is communication there are also lies and deceit. On occasions, giving the wrong impression can save your life. That is a lesson the Asaro, a Papuan tribe, learnt some time in the distant past.
As always in Papua, they commemorate that event by reproducing it every year, so that the oral tradition is not lost.
While for many animals colours serve to reaffirm their group identity, to find a mate, to hunt, to hide or to defend themselves, for human beings it has also long been associated with religious contact with the other world. The ritual masks of the Ivory Coast are not decorative elements or folklore. They are doors which open into the spiritual world, and can only be used by initiated members of the secret societies of each clan.