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arts

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African Art: Traditional  
 
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Among women in initiation proceedings, for example in the Bondo association of Sierra Leone, it is said that the very tight bonds that are developed between the initiates of the same age group often include homosexuality, in the context of an extremely close and lengthy confinement away from the rest of society, and that these relationships often continue into adulthood and heterosexual marriage.

Among the Kaguru of Tanzania, some men claim that women demonstrate sexual intercourse to the girls in initiation, the leaders together, and with the initiates, taking the roles of both men and women, although this has not been confirmed.

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Homosexuality in the Artist/Ritual Leader

While homosexuality may not often be the subject of African art, homosexual persons may be more inclined than others to become practitioners of the arts and rituals. In the Sudan, the healing ritual system known as zaar, practiced mainly by women, is also joined by men, some of whom become ritual leaders. These men are assumed to be homosexual by the community, and some are overtly homosexual. In Mombasa, Kenya, receptive homosexual men called mashoga, dressed in wigs and women's clothes, are active as performers at weddings, playing the pembe (a female musical instrument), and doing chagkacha (a seductive female dance).

Male ritual leaders called mugawe among the Meru of Kenya dress as women routinely and sometimes even marry other men. Coptic monks in the sixth or seventh century, whose work included the painting of sacred manuscripts, apparently were known for their homosexuality, judging by a man's wedding vow on papyrus that promises "never to take another wife, never to fornicate, nor to consort with wandering monks."

Among the Dagara of Burkina Faso, the homosexual man is said to be well integrated into the community, occupying a performance role of intermediacy between this world and the otherworld, as a sort of "gatekeeper." As Somé reports, a Dagara man has testified that such a person "experiences a state of vibrational consciousness which is far higher, and far different from the one the normal person would experience. . . . So when you arrive here, you begin to vibrate in a way that Elders can detect as meaning that you are connected with a gateway somewhere. . . . You decide that you will be a gatekeeper before you are born."

Diviners, who manipulate materials to find a spiritual solution to clients' problems, in several areas of Africa have been known to be homosexuals, for example among the Zulu of South Africa and among the Nyoro of Kenya, where they would demonstrate spiritual possession by "becoming a woman."

Carlos Estermann found that among the Ambo of Angola a special order of diviner, called omasenge, dressed as women, did women's work, and contracted marriage with other men who might also be married to women. "An esenge [sing. of omasenge] is essentially a man who has been possessed since childhood by a spirit of female sex, which has been drawing out of him, little by little, the taste for everything that is masculine and virile."

In the case of the Zande of the Central African Republic, sex between a man and a boy was said to benefit the diviner, and would take place before the consultation of oracles, when sex with women would be taboo. But, as Evans-Prichard reported, the Zande went on to allow that the reason was not simply ritual prohibition, but also "just because they like them."

Homoeroticism in Art

Perhaps the most common use of eroticism in African art is the depiction of the phallus. Well-known examples of singular phallic sculpture include columnar earthen shrines, documented among many groups in the Sahel, for example, the Dogon, Batammaliba, and Lobi. The sexual realism of these columns is heightened by the pouring of white meal over the rounded top.

Large, vertical, stone pillars, called akwanshi, found along the Cross River in Nigeria, and traced to before the colonial period, are carved quite realistically as an erect penis, with a distinct head and shaft. Generally the height of an adult person, they seem also to represent a truncated human figure.

Male initiates among the Zulu of South Africa carry wooden clubs with a knob on the end resembling the head of a penis. With sometimes several dozen young men initiated at one time, the sea of upraised phalluses is a powerful sight.

The Baga of Guinea revere a great male founding spirit who is manifested by an enormous, vertical shaft of fiber, perhaps twenty meters tall, topped by a wooden bird head, and carried inside by as many as twenty men. The powerful male image is frightening to the community, as it shivers and throbs. Alternatively, a heavy, wooden, vertical shaft in the form of a huge serpent may represent the founding male spirit, and is balanced on top of the dancer's head.

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