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African Art: Traditional  
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Many forms of ambiguous sexuality can be found throughout the traditional arts of Africa, including images of , , and transvestism; and much of erotic sculpture and theater can also be seen as .

Traditional African art is distinguished here from contemporary African art, but it should be noted that tradition and the contemporary are not mutually exclusive in Africa. If "tradition," is recognized to mean "handed down," then most of what is known as the traditional African arts almost always blends the traditional with the transitional, or the "handed across," to varying degrees. The same can be said of homosexual traditions.

African arts are a holistic form traditionally, consisting of the integration of sculpture, costuming, sound, movement, oral narrative, and theater, which sometimes are indistinguishable. This concept of holism applies not only to the arts, but pervades all of traditional African thinking about the nature of things and of human behavior. Holism does not divide, as in Western compartmentalization and categorization.


Polarities, in Africa, such as "homosexual" and "heterosexual," may function as complementary oppositions generally do, expressing the extremes of human behavior, as the passive and the aggressive, the benevolent and the malevolent, the feminine and the masculine, or the spiritual and the physical.

There are many examples of dual, antithetical masks. Among the Baga of Guinea, for example, the masquerade of D'mba is the epitome of beauty and good comportment, while her antithesis, D'mba-da-Tshol, is the epitome of ugliness and erratic behavior. Among the Dan of Liberia, sleek and gentle female masks are opposed to grotesque and violent male masks.

In social structure, dual entities exist, such as masculine and feminine sides of the village among the Baga, each containing men and women, each side complementing the other in complex alignments of paired oppositions.

Together, these pairings, in masking and in social structure, suggest the human condition and the need to balance complementary oppositions such as aggression and passivity, order and chaos, care and neglect, the hot and the cool, and masculine and feminine qualities in both men and women. In much of African culture, the extremes, which are found in all of us, are considered useful and should be channeled situationally.

Homosexual Behavior in African Cultures

Apparently, many cultures in Africa include the range of sexuality in these useful dualities. Quite a few studies have shown that homosexual behavior is accepted in many traditional African societies, even if, like much of African thought, it is not to be discussed openly. Homosexual behavior has its accepted niche, for example, among the Temne of Sierra Leone, where it is associated with the "left hand," as opposed to the "right," the hidden and private as opposed to the open and public.

Public display is governed in Africa differently from the West. Same-sex physical affection, such as holding hands, hugging, kissing, and sleeping together is simply the African norm, displayed openly, although not associated with homosexuality. Public display of affection between men and women, however, is considered offensive.

Sexual play and intercourse between men, especially, and, to some extent, between women, has been documented widely in traditional Africa, and in some cases it is practiced openly. Frequently scholars have attributed these activities to economic need of the powerless, sexual voracity of the powerful, or the social prohibition of heterosexual activity before marriage. Sexual preference, however, might also be considered a factor in some cases.

In the ritual arts, some homosexuality seems to have taken place, although this is extremely difficult to document, given the severe secrecy governing most of African ritual. Because of its special status, homosexuality is often accommodated in ritual situations, such as the priesthood, where the special facility of gender mediation suggests special spiritual powers. Ritual contexts have also provided for the acceptance of homosexuality as a stable category, and for some rare cases of homosexual marriage within traditional African societies.

Many forms of ambiguous sexuality can be found throughout the African traditional arts, including images of androgyny, hermaphroditism, and transvestism. Arguably, much of erotic sculpture and theater can also be explained as homoerotic, although the goals of eroticism may differ greatly in the African context from that of the Western context, having more to do with increase and the veneration of ancestral power than with sexual pleasure. Furthermore, African art is so symbolic and iconic that if homosexual implications do exist, they may be difficult for the outsider to read.

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This 19th Century Ejagham Janus Mask from the Guinea Coast of Nigeria delineates the physical and the spiritual, the female and male.
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