Paint it, Black

A biography of kohl containers
eye make-up

Paint it, Black

With a title so rock and roll, a book can only be fabulous, and is certainly what Paint it, Black by Jolanda Bos is. In this study, she zooms in on one of the most well-known objects from the Arab world and beyond: kohl containers. Kohl, kajal or surma is widely used to decorate eyes and eyelids. This practice dates back millennia; some of the oldest kohl containers come from ancient Egypt. Surprisingly enough however, no study into these items exited until now.

Kohl containers vary in size, shape and materials used throughout the regio under study in this book. By comparing their decoration and execution to that of other elements of costume and dress, it becomes possible to see where in the personal sphere these items belonged. In some countries, they are clearly at home in the realm of adornment and jewellery, while in other countries their place is more among dress and clothing. Associations like these tell us more about the values attached to these objects.

These values in turn are manifold. Throughout the book, their social and ritual values are presented and illustrated, but also their economical and technological values. In some countries, the containers are used in wedding rituals and as such imply a deeper meaning than just a container for make-up. This deeper level of meaning is also apparent in the many archaeological objects shown in the book, where protection and status were values closely connected to seemingly everyday utensils.

Beautifully illustrated and with a catalogue of over 30 objects, this book presents a unique overview of the history and use of kohl containers. I especially liked the intermittent ‘kohl stories’, in which an aspect of kohl (ancient and modern) is highlighted. This hardcover book will embellish your ethnographical library!

Here is a review of the book and photos of its UK launch in London, and here is a 13 minute podcast with the author about this topic.

Paint It, Black. A Biography of kohl containers, by Jolanda Bos (2019) Blikveld UItgevers Publishers

356 pp, full colour, in English. The book can be ordered directly with the publishers, via Oxbow books or via Casemate.

The book was a gift from the author and publisher.