Photos A Surma man spends many hours perfecting his appearance during courtship season. His white chalk star design is made from the paint-laden tip of a branch, splayed into a paintbrush and used as a stamp. To complement this design he makes a paste of pulverized cattle dung mixed with water that is used to draw concentric circles on his back. This pattern of circles matches the delicate design on his newly shaved head.West of the Omo river, in a mountainous region bordering Sudan, live the Surma – who have been forced out of their ancestral homelands by the Bumi, their traditional enemies. Guns have replaced spears in order to protect their families and discourage cattle raiding.Gathering at the riverbank, Surma girls express their affection for one another by painting each other’s faces with intricate patterns. Each day during the courtship season they return to the chalk banks to create new designs. Using a mixture of chalk and water from the riverbank for the initial design, they then highlight the patterns with red ocher paint made from pulverized rock containing iron ore. Their innovative face and body patterns are designed to attract the opposite sex.Transforming the body with paint is a source of delight for small Surma children, like “dressing up” in the Western world. In this way they learn to decorate themselves for courtship rituals later in life. These little girls have painted their faces with identical designs to identify themselves as best friends. In anticipation of maturity they often encircle their nipples with white chalk lines.Left: Inspiration for Surma face painting often comes from the exotic markings of animals or birds.The spots on this girl’s face and body are reminiscent of those found in the plumage of guinea fowl. Right: Ever inventive, a Surma body artist creates a bold floral motif using a splayed stick to stamp a repeat pattern in ocher and chalk paste over the skin of a friend.A Surma girl at left, considered by her village to be among the most beautiful, stands patiently as a male body artist paints an exquisite mask motif, drawing attention to her eyes. The unusual shape of her head is found very attractive to Surma men. The men know which designs will most enhance their beauty and appeal. They paint the girls without inhibition to accentuate the essence of their feminity.A lacy pattern of delicate dots decorates the face of a young Surma girl. Her clay earplug enhances her beauty. Created to complement a young girl’s fragile beauty, these designs are often set off by subtle patterns shaved into the hair.Surma girls express their affection for one another by painting their faces and bodies with identical chalk and ocher designs.The curved horn designs on their arms reflect their attachment to their cattle, on whom their survival depends.When Surma men apply one another’s body paint, the movements required for the smooth application of a continuous line resemble those of a graceful ballet dancer. This balletic process is also reminiscent of Zen calligraphy. The painter does not lift his brush until the painting is finished; this process of continuous flow must be completed from beginning until end while the paint is still wet.Every day our Surma friends would come to our tents and proudly present their newly painted body designs for us to photograph. They were so spontaneous – some painted for pleasure, some used the body as a canvas, oblivious to the impermanence of each day’s work of art. Viewed at close range, their intricately painted chest designs ceased to be mere body decoration and became strikingly graphic works of art.Surma men create their principal body decoration by smearing the skin with a mixture of chalk and water and drawing intricate designs with their wet fingertips to expose the dark skin underneath. Their innovative designs are highly decorative and change daily according to mood.To enhance their look, men often shave their hair into a style of fine concentric lines cut with a razor blade. Barcini, featured in these images, was one of the most skilled body.The facial features and mischievous mood of Muradit become an integral part of the impact of his painted face. His looped metal earrings complement the swirling intricacy of his face paint.Surma men also use body painting as a gesture of friendship. Regular body-painting sessions enable groups of men to relax, socialize, and bond more closely. There are two techniques used in Surma body painting. The first involves splaying the tip of a small branch into a paintbrush, which allows a man to create a pattern of repetitive designs by stamping them onto the skin. The second technique involves slathering a mixture of chalk and water over the body and using the fingertips to draw designs in the wet paint.In addition to the communal courtship dances, young men perform duelling dances before the upcoming Donga Stick Fight where they will display their physical prowess and impress young female spectators.Groups of Surma fighters, holding their Donga sticks high in the air and chanting in frenzied rhythms, approach their opponents at the clearing in the forest where the fights will take place.Their bodies are covered with white chalk to intimidate their opponents. A wildly dangerous sport, the Donga is fought for three reasons – to prove masculinity, to settle personal vendettas, and above all, to win wives.After the harvest , Surma men assemble for a series of wild and violent stick fights called the Donga. A test of nerves and brute strength, the Donga is fought to prove masculinity, settle personal vendettas, and, most importantly, win wives.The contestans of the Donga Stick Fight are armed with six-foot-long wooden poles, fight in heats, with the winners going on to the next round until the until the competition narrows to two finalists.At the tournament’s end, the winner is ceremonially lifted onto a platform of fighting sticks and presented to a group of young girls watching from the sidelines. Amongst themselves, the girls will decide which of them will choose the winner as her husband.Amongst the group of young girls attending the stick fight, this girl has chosen the winner to be her husband. Her lower lip will be pierced and stretched over a six-month period and a lip plate inserted, indicating the number of cattle required by her parents for her hand in marriage.A Surma bride wears a clay lip plate inserted into her lower lip six months before marriage. The size of the plate indicates the number of cattle the groom must pay her family for her hand in marriage. This lip plate is worth seventy-five head of cattle. A Surma man paints his body and performs in stick fights in order to win wives. Muradit, at right, was the champion of this Donga Stick Fight.