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arts

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African Art: Traditional  
 
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But an exceptional event is the Baga dance for their great female spirit, a-Bol, in which all the participating men dress as women and imitate their movements erotically, undulating the hips, and sometimes suggesting sexual intercourse with men on the sidelines. The musical instruments used during the dance are those normally reserved exclusively for women: the cittern, wa-sakumba, and the small të- ndëf drum.

It has been suggested that because the female spirit is the patron of the lower-ranking clans, associated with "the younger," who are, in turn, associated with homosexuality (common before marriage), the men representing her are placed ritually in this class and its sexual reference.

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Among the Yoruba of Nigeria, priests of the god Shango, the god of thunder and lightning, are usually female, but male priests are common and they always dress as women, with braided hair. They operate in the ritual context in which the god is said to "mount" the priest in spirit possession, as a male animal mounts a female in intercourse. Some studies have indicated specifically that the male priests do not practice homosexuality, while others have disputed this.

There are hundreds of examples throughout West and Central Africa in which men represent women with masks, sometimes with false breasts and false pregnant bellies, for example, among the Dogon of Mali, the Yoruba of Nigeria, and the Chokwe of Zambia. It is the men, not the women, who represent the spiritual world, in general, and who are authorized to perform masked, with the exceptions noted above.

Explanations for this phenomenon may vary from group to group, but commonly it is simply a function of the male control of the spiritual. Women are often associated with the physical world, the village, and the home, whereas men are often associated with the spiritual world, the world outside the secure domicile.

Men also use masks to control, to honor, to placate, and sometimes, to rebuke women. In the Yoruba Gelede dances, for example, men assume the likeness of "the mothers" in order to control their extraordinary powers, which they fear, and which are symbolized, in part, by the woman's unique ability to nurture.

Gender Transformation

There are some examples of permanent gender transformation, which goes beyond occasional cross-dressing, in which men "become" women and women "become" men in African ritual. Among the Gabra of Ethiopia and Kenya, symbolic gender inversion takes place as a function of the gender-specificity of space, as older men are assigned to the inside of the camps, a feminine space, whereas masculinity is constructed among the younger men by assignment to the outside. Whereas the initiation of boys turns them into men, the second initiation, jilla galaani ("rites of the return home"), turns the men into women socially, though not sexually.

In Sierra Leone, men are theoretically unable to join the women's Bondo association, but one case has been mentioned in which a man who had violated Bondo secrecy was initiated as a Bondo official and was henceforth regarded as a woman. Likewise, women in Sierra Leone are prohibited from joining the men's Poro association, but every local chapter of Poro is likely to have a few women in official positions who, likewise, are said to have violated Poro law, and are required to live their lives as men.

No one has studied this phenomenon in depth enough to determine exactly what this means sexually. One wonders how "coerced" the transformations are, when every potential violator, even from childhood, knows well the consequences of such a violation.

The accession to leadership sometimes seems to require gender transformation. Two pharaohs of ancient Egypt, Hatshepsut and Smenkhare, who are believed to have been women (the latter being Nefertiti in her later years), are consistently shown wearing false beards and men's clothing, just as the male pharaohs. This is probably not because they functioned as men sexually, but because a male identity was needed to function as a pharaoh. Accompanying texts refer to them exclusively as men.

Women elsewhere in Africa today who take the role of monarchs may be regarded as women sexually but as men socially, and are called not queens, but kings and chiefs, as among the Mende of Sierra Leone, the Chokwe of Zambia, or the Mbundu of Angola. One might argue that this is a convenient mechanism to avoid enfranchising women as a class.

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