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African Art: Traditional  
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Homosexual Coupling in Art and Ritual

In the material form of the arts, the clear depiction of homosexuality of any type is almost non-existent. There are, however, two exceptions worth noting.

One ancient Egyptian wall relief from Dynasty V south of Saqqara shows the close embrace of two powerful male court officials, Nyankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, both bearing the title of "king's manicurist." Face to face, with noses touching, one holds the other's wrist, while the other, slightly behind, holds the shoulder of the first.

Although their shared tomb depicts their respective wives and children as well, which is common imagery, this precise embrace is a pose reserved in Egyptian art for spouses, or in representing the king being received by a god, and the embrace of two men is never otherwise seen. The two men have been called brothers, or twins, by scholars, but no written evidence from the tomb supports this.

South of the Sahara, one ivory carving dating to the early twentieth century from the Vili of Congo (Kinshasha), in a private collection in Antwerp, seems to show several homosexual scenes: two men with their hands on the genitals of adjacent men, two men holding a phallic staff, and one man holding his own erection.

Sexuality is clearly an element in some prehistoric South African rock painting, where groups of men are shown with erections, but they are generally hunting scenes, and the intent of this imagery is elusive. Wrestling scenes in Egyptian art, such as those at Beni Hassan, may seem homoerotic to Westerners, but they function in the context of war and Egyptian assertions of power.

To the casual observer, the appearance of homosexuality in African art is often the result of a misunderstanding of complex symbolic codes. Conversely, the seeming absence of clear imagery throughout African art may be due to our inability to interpret more abstract conventions, or due to the inherent "left-handedness" or secrecy of homosexual acts.

Homosexual coupling, both male and female, however, clearly exists in other forms of art, such as theatrical ritual, where it can easily be read because of the direct use of the human body. In the proceedings of male and female initiation into adulthood, the context of some of the most magnificent African art and essentially a theater of symbolic performance ritual, homosexual practices are often reported.

Man-boy sex, or at least the representation of it, is most common. Among the Temne of Sierra Leone, for example, the last boy to be initiated is given the name, Tithkabethi ("vagina initiate"). Boys in initiation often wear women's clothes, as documented among the Temne and among the Nandi of Kenya.

Among the Ndembu of Congo (Kinshasa), the chief instructor of the boys' initiation is called the "husband of the novices" and the novices themselves are called mwadi, senior wives, and are said to be "married by" the chief instructor. The novices are said to play with the sexual organs of male visitors to the initiation lodge, a practice considered helpful in the healing of their circumcisions. In a particular ritual, an elder man lies on the ground, exposing his penis, and each of the novices mimes copulation with him.

One must keep in mind that initiation procedure is performance, not real life. Nevertheless, that these practices overlie real man-boy sex within the initiation is not so hard to imagine, as the practice has been documented so thoroughly throughout Africa in daily life apart from ritual. In Sierra Leone, for example, it is rather common for a "big man," who otherwise leads a heterosexual life, to have sex with an adolescent boy, to whom he gives gifts, as he would to any lover. Enough suggestions have been given of homosexual insertion as a part of African male initiation to give the practice some credibility.

Throughout the male initiation ceremony, the masculinity of the young boy is challenged, whether through beatings by the older men, the ritual mutilation of his penis, or through sexual receptivity. It has been suggested that since initiation procedures are sexually exclusive, and each sex remains independent from the other for a given period of time, heterosexual intercourse itself is rejected in favor of homosexual intercourse.

Nowhere in Africa is man-boy sex explained, as it is in New Guinea, as a means of increasing the sexual potency of the young boy. Rather, it seems to function as a demonstration of power relations, and, to some extent, as sex education as well as gender formation. It is in the rituals of male and female initiation principally that the social construction of gender is negotiated and reinforced.

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