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African Art: Traditional  
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Sexual Duality

Many representations exist showing the human being as Janus, of dual sex. Janus masks of the Ejagham in Nigeria, for example, have one face dark and one light, delineating the oppositions of physical and spiritual, female and male. Human figures of the Lobi of Burkina Faso, the Dogon of Mali, and the Luba of Congo (Kinshasha), among many African ethnic groups, are carved with a male face on one side and a female face on the other. This depiction can represent the bisexual ancestors or other spiritual beings who are both male and female or have attributes of both. It can also represent the ability to work in both the physical and the spiritual worlds, themselves frequently aligned with such dyads as the interior and exterior, the village and the wilderness, and the feminine and the masculine.


Although homosexual activity is widely documented in the history of Africa, and homosexual status is known as a tradition in various areas, the depiction of the homosexual is almost unknown in sculpture and painting for traditional ritual. However, it is well-known in ritual performance. The problem for research is how to interpret this phenomenon, and even more basically, how to decipher it within an artistic system based upon metaphor and hidden meaning.

While there is little evidence of the homosexuality of artists, per se, there is widespread documentation of the homosexuality or gender transformation of the leaders of ritual performance, who function as intermediaries between worlds because of their gender fluidity. In the world of African art and ritual dominated by men, the enormous corpus of phallic objects seems to suggest, if not homosexual preference, then homosexual fascination, celebration, reverence, or titillation. In the exhibition of homosexual activity, gender transformation, cross-dressing, androgyny, and sexual duality, many possibilities of interpretation exist, and the student of African art and communication, which are always highly metaphoric, is cautioned to avoid assuming the obvious.

Frederick Lamp

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arts >> Overview:  African Art: Contemporary

Bulelwa Madekurozwa and Rotimi Fani-Kayode are the most prominent of contemporary openly gay African artists who produce work with homosexual themes.

social sciences >> Overview:  Africa: Sub-Saharan, Pre-Independence

With reports from hundreds of sub-Saharan African locales of male-male sexual relations and from about fifty of female-female sexual relations, it is clear that same-sex sexual relations existed in traditional African societies, though varying in forms and in the degree of public acceptance

arts >> Overview:  Pacific Art

The art of the Pacific cultures that practiced male homosexuality in a ritual context included flutes, bullroarers, and woven textiles used in male initiations and other ceremonies.

social sciences >> Overview:  South Africa

The diverse South African glbtq community both thrives and struggles amid the contradictions between a conservative traditional culture and some of the most progressive gay rights legislation in the world.


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Bourgeois, Arthur P. "Yaka Masks and Sexual Imagery." African Arts 15.2 (1982): 47-50, 87.

Drewal, Henry J., and Margaret T. Drewal. Gelede: Art and Female Power among the Yoruba. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Dundes, Alan. "A Psychoanalytic Study of the Bullroarer." Man n.s. 11.2 (1976): 220-238.

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Hambley, Wilfred D. Sourcebook for African Anthropology. Chicago: Field Museum, 1937.

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Lamp, Frederick "Frogs into Princes: the Temne Rabai Initiation." African Arts 11.2 (1978): 34-49, 94.

_____. Art of the Baga: A Drama of Cultural Reinvention. New York: Museum for African Art, and Munich: Prestel, 1996.

_____, ed. See the Music, Hear the Dance: Rethinking African Art at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art, and Munich: Prestel, 2004.

Matory, J. Lorand. Sex and the Empire That Is No More: Gender and the Politics of Metaphor in Oyo Yoruba Religion. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Murray, Stephen O., & Will Roscoe, eds. Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities. New York: St. Martin's, 1998.

Pierpont Morgan Library. Coptic papyrus, M662 B12 (wedding contract for a cleric), 6th-7th centuries.

Smith, W. Stevenson, and William K. Simpson. The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt. New York: Penguin Books, 1981.

Somé, Malidoma Patrice. "Gays As Spiritual Gate Keepers." White Crane Newsletter 4.9 (1993): 1, 6, 8.

Turner, Victor. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967.

Talbot, P. Amaury. Some Nigerian Fertility Cults. London: Oxford University Press, 1927.

Wood, John Colman. When Men Are Women: Manhood among Gabra Nomads of East Africa. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.


    Citation Information
    Author: Lamp, Frederick  
    Entry Title: African Art: Traditional  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated February 25, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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