Issue #139 Anarcho-Ecstasy: Options for an Afri-Queer Becoming

Anarcho-Ecstasy: Options for an Afri-Queer Becoming

KJ Abudu

Nolan Oswald Dennis, No Conciliation Is Possible (working diagram), 2022. Installation view, CCA Berlin, 2022. Photo: Diana Pfammatter.

Issue #139
October 2023

The diminution of the value of African life, on the continent and elsewhere, appears to be one of the most persistent and necessary organizing features of colonial capitalist modernity. For a brief moment, the mid–twentieth century epoch of anti-colonial national liberation struggles arose as a credible challenge to five centuries of the continent’s subjection, forging a pathway to the establishment of many (purportedly independent) nation-states. Yet, bound by the modern juridical grammars of national sovereignty and conscripted into the dispossessive logics of neoliberal financial capitalism, these African postcolonial states and their citizens soon found themselves once more “ensnared by [the] colonial matrix of power.”1 Simultaneously operative on psychic, material, and onto-epistemological planes, these colonial matrices of power, which are inseparable from the project of modernity, enable the ongoing curtailment of life in the African postcolony, especially of the queer lives that inhabit its necropolitical domains.2


Over the last decade, many African governments, from Uganda and Kenya to Ghana and Nigeria, have drafted or passed anti-queer legislation, much of which criminalizes same-sex sexual intimacy as well as social infrastructures (associations, clubs, and so on) that facilitate queer sociality.3 Constantly invoked by postcolonial governmental and religious elites is the notion that queerness is “foreign” to the national and/or continental body. Queerphobia, then, gains public legitimacy through the melancholic revival of anti-colonial sentiments, as queerness (and, suspiciously, not Christianity, or the nation-state model, or the capitalist mode of production) is viewed as an imported Western perversion, as an affront to national “culture,” “morals,” and “tradition.” In most cases, the ruling classes weaponize Christian or Islamic morality to portray queer citizens as sexual or gender deviants (and thus traitors of the nationalist project)—often without a historical acknowledgment of the epistemic imperial violence that made these religious templates thinkable in the first place. Consequently, the queer African is abjectly cast as the noncitizen whose existence beyond the law provides an a priori justification for arbitrary exercises of targeted violence, state-sanctioned or otherwise.

Queer African scholars and activists have usually responded to these queerphobic policies and discourses in two ways, both of which reverse the flow of anti-colonial indignation. One strategy has been to trace the genealogy of contemporary anti-queer legislation to the colonial era, whereby (British) colonial state administrations, attuned to the rigid Victorian sexual mores of the imperial metropole, instituted penal codes that criminalized “sodomy” and “buggery.” This first rebuttal identifies the crucial argument that gender and sexuality are core components of the colonial matrix of power and are therefore inseparable from modern world-historical processes of racialization and capitalist accumulation. But, as some point out, it is not clear how unveiling such legislative genealogies deters the repressive actions of contemporary postcolonial actors.4 In other words, this mode of argumentation downplays the distinct rationales behind the postcolonial state’s investments in queerphobia. While, as postcolonial theorist Achille Mbembe reminds us, the postcolonial state inherited many of its vices from the colonial state—governance with impunity, the cultural diffusion of extractivist logics, the muddling of public and private expenditure, and so on—such arguments leave little room for assessing the postcolonial sphere as a distinct historical formation with its own set of desires, mandates, and protocols.5

The anti-colonial struggles mentioned earlier, many of which gave birth to the postcolonial states we know today, (re)consolidated an array of heteropatriarchal logics in their bid to both eliminate the relation of dominance between the colonizer and the colonized and inaugurate their grand modern projects of nation building.6 Indeed, in most cases, these heteropatriarchal configurations found their originary enunciation within the bureaucratic machinery imposed by colonial states. For example, decolonial feminist scholar Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí argues in The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses that “the creation of ‘women’ as a category was one of the very first accomplishments of the colonial state” and that “the postindependence second-class status of African women’s citizenship is rooted in the process of inventing them as women.”7 Writing on the gendered structural effects of British indirect rule on nineteenth-century Yoruba (specifically Oyo) society in present-day southwestern Nigeria, Oyěwùmí further states that “it is precisely at the time that the state was becoming omnipotent that women were excluded from its institutions. The omnipotence of the state was a new tradition in Yoruba society, as it was in many African societies.”8

Like other African feminist theorists such as Nkiru Nzegwu and Ifi Amadiume, Oyěwùmí’s analysis makes lucid the historical linkages between, on the one hand, the expropriative mechanisms of colonial sovereignty and the spread of the Christian civilizing mission, and on the other, the subordination of African women via their expulsion from the public sphere and their relegation to the private, domestic sphere—these very spheres owing their modern co-constitutive formation to the animating logics of colonial statecraft.9 More importantly, postcolonial elites replicated these gendered and sexualized rubrics following the achievement of so-called independence, prioritizing the nuclear family model (and its complimentary religious mores of heterosexual propriety and respectability) as the social unit upon which the postcolonial nation would be built.10 Patriarchal heteronormativity therefore functioned as a tool for population management and capitalist accumulation in the postindependence era in that it guaranteed smooth-sailing social reproduction under newly instituted global regimes of neocolonial domination. I speak here of the neoliberal stranglehold of debt servitude, multinational corporatist extraction, and Euro-American militaristic interference that most postcolonial African states found themselves in from the 1980s onwards as a result of the structural adjustment programs imposed by global financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Additionally, “heteropatriarchal recolonization,” to borrow feminist theorist M. Jacqui Alexander’s term, served as a psychosocial counterreaction to centuries of colonial denigrations and mythologizations of African masculinity, and African sexuality more broadly.11

These material and ideological mechanisms still fuel contemporary queerphobic discourses on the continent, as queer Africans are often conceptualized as not belonging to the national community, which is another way to say that their very existence threatens, frustrates, and disorganizes the heteropatriarchal organizing principles that cohere the post/neo-colonial nationalist project. Constituted as a dis-cohesive systemic threat, which scholar Black feminist scholar Katherine McKittrick, following Sylvia Wynter, has fittingly described as “demonic,” I argue that queerness in the African postcolony might generatively be conceived as an entropic force that unsettles and expands hitherto policed decolonial frontiers.12

Nolan Oswald Dennis, after la paperson (K. Wayne Yang), 2018.

The second counterstrategy launched by queer African activists and scholars consists of excavating archives to provide evidence of queer relations or modes of self-fashioning that precede the colonial encounter, and which therefore undo the supposed foreignness of queerness. In this way, African indigenous lifeworlds are reclaimed as always already queer, often with the use of globalized LBGT+ terms and discourses. Tendencies within this strategy, such as labeling alter/non-gendered African indigenous people from various points in history with terms like “gay” or “drag,” rightly illuminate the coloniality of gender and sexuality in that they expose the naturalization and universalization of the biocentric gender binary system and compulsive heterosexuality as part and parcel of the (neo)colonial project. At the same time, retroactively applying such familiar contemporary labels risks romanticizing indigenous forms of queer expression, many of which might have been tightly regulated in their time, and more importantly, reproduces the effacement of the historicity of these terms as constructed by hegemonic Euro-American orders of knowledge.13 On this latter point, queer theorist Kwame Edwin Otu discusses the related phenomenon of “homocolonialism,” wherein Western LGBT+ human rights organizations and NGOs transpose their own articulations of nonnormative gender and sexuality onto African queer subjects, often without a structural interrogation of the neoliberal and neocolonial conditions that make their work on the continent possible in the first place.14

Queer theorist Rahul Rao has written on similar matters, extending philosopher Jasbir Puar’s term “homonationalism” to think about the ways that Euro-American governments (as well as complicit queer African actors) instrumentalize queer liberalism to portray Global South governments, most of whom lack constitutional protections for queer persons, as “backwards.”15 Rao argues that homonationalism reinscribes colonial ideologies of civilizational difference between the Global North and the Global South as it replicates the chronopolitics of white Euro-American supremacy, this time by enshrining the achievement of queer human rights as a marker of sovereign maturation, advancement, and progress. Rao further advances the term “homocapitalism” to describe the ways Global North governments, global financial institutions, and elite LGBT+ activists collude to maintain and reproduce neoliberal/neocolonial relations of dominance with Global South governments by weaponizing the acceptance of queer rights as either the condition for the continued receipt of foreign aid or as a disciplinary justification for imposing economic sanctions.16 Homocapitalism, then, sows internal divisions within the African postcolony, as it pits the ruling classes (who appropriate the majority of aid for private use) against the queer population while propelling said population to unprecedented levels of public visibility and scrutiny.

Queer African political struggles are therefore born at the embattled intersection of what Otu calls “competing modernities,” in that they are fueled by the unresolved frictions between the colonial specters of Western modernity (and its Christian theological correlates) as well as the contemporary neocolonial/neoliberal forces of Euro-American-centered queer liberalism.17 The African continent becomes, once again, the staging ground for the unfolding of these world-historical contradictions, with the former reproducing its hold on African politics via the funding of Christian fundamentalist groups from the Global North (who, waning in domestic influence, have found it necessary to export their queerphobic discourses to Christianized ex-colonies) and the latter through the presence of Western LGBT+ human rights groups and NGOs (who, also funded by Global North capital, participate in neoliberalism’s consumerist co-optation of queer liberation).


What path might an anti-colonial and anti-capitalist Afri-queer politics chart out from this debilitating juncture? Such a fugitive gambit would involve, among various tactical options, a focused attention on the onto-epistemological conditions that both govern and are in turn produced by the material configurations outlined above. Following Otu’s call, I would like to queer the “queer” in queer African politics, a pursuit that I hope will both unveil coloniality/modernity’s sense-making boundaries and situate queer liberation as necessarily entangled with and fundamental to Africa’s decolonial liberation. To conduct this inquiry, I turn to the experimental photo-aesthetics of British-Nigerian artist Rotimi Fani-Kayode. Fani-Kayode’s work proves exceedingly relevant here not only because of its animistic re-enchantment of the photographic apparatus through Yoruba ritual or its unsettling of the coloniality of gender and sexuality via the queer erotic, but also because it materially indexes entwined histories of postcolonial state failure, diasporic exile, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the ascendency of the global neoliberal order.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Bronze Head, 1987. Image courtesy of Autograph ABP, London.

Let’s take Bronze Head (1987) as an example—one of the many works Fani-Kayode produced out of his studio in South London before his untimely death in 1989. In the photograph, a nude, rear-facing, male-presenting Black figure becomes fleshly enmeshed with an iconic work of classical Yoruba art, the bronze Ife head. The figure is notably cropped; we only see the buttocks, the thighs, and a portion of the calves. Meanwhile, the bronze head is positioned in the center of the photograph on a patinaed wooden stool, its gleaming surface, striated facial markings, and blank wide eyes radiating a divine presence. What is most striking about the image is the way in which the top of the bronze head becomes physically absorbed by the figure’s tensed buttocks.

The photograph immediately lends itself to a homoerotic reading, as the bronze head doubles as a phallic form that penetrates the figure’s anus. In this way, the photograph might generically be categorized as “queer” and, given the incorporation of a work of classical African art, as either a tongue-in-cheek subversion of Africa’s regressive homophobia or a postmodern iconographical representation of Black gay African “identity.” Such readings are not entirely unwarranted. Having lived across the UK and the US during the 1970s and 1980s (following his family’s exile from Nigeria the year the country’s civil war broke out in 1966),18 Fani-Kayode was likely exposed to and perhaps influenced by the desire-laced compositions produced and distributed by gay photographers of the Global North and their associated networks of subcultural zines.19 However, interpretations prioritizing identitarian forms of subversion are ultimately limited by their misreading of the function of the “queer” erotic in Fani-Kayode’s work—a misreading that symptomizes coloniality’s subjugation and denigration of indigenous aesthetic grammars, which exceed yet constitute modernity’s secularized, Eurocentric boundaries.

Put another way, Fani-Kayode’s works destabilize the critical-theoretical apparatuses that would cohere a term such as “queer.” This is because the works structurally incorporate—via performative methods and mediatic interventions (and not merely through pictorial or representational means)—a series of ecstatic ritualistic procedures derived from reanimated Yoruba systems of thought. In so doing, the photographs illuminate what decolonial theorist Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls the “abyssal line,” which maintains a hierarchal colonial distinction between Western-centric epistemologies (of which queer theory, among various other critical-theoretical discourses, is a part) and the global majority’s ways of knowing and being.20 Engaging in what Santos calls a “sociology of absences”—a tending-to and tarrying-with colonial modernity’s exteriorized knowledges—Fani-Kayode’s eroticized resuscitations of Yoruba onto-epistemological schemes carry notable implications for how we might name, think, and mobilize the very notion of “queerness.”21

Oyěwùmí’s thinking offers a grounding entry point here as she painstakingly argues that (British) colonization introduced a Western biological-determinist understanding of gender—one that mapped the social meanings of gender onto the physical body, conflating sexual anatomy and gender to such a degree that they could not be thought and viewed apart. This was incommensurable with the non-body-based logic of Yoruba society in which social facts are autonomous from biology and are fluidly articulated through multiply shifting social relations.22 Age, and not gender, Oyěwùmí explains, was the social determinant of power in Yoruba society prior to colonial intrusion. Oyěwùmí then goes further—that is, she crosses the abyssal line—in arguing that the term “gender” ought to be subject to theoretical scrutiny whenever it is viewed as a universally available social category.23 This is because “gender,” even in its more social-constructionist evocations, is very often tied to Western biocentric conceptions, which are then, as we have seen earlier, problematically imposed on indigenous social classifications. Pairing Yoruba linguistic analysis with historical and ethnographic research, Oyěwùmí argues, not without controversy, that the Yoruba world-sense (as opposed to the ocular-centrism and bio-anatomical fixation implied by the term “worldview”) constitutes a “nongendered ontology.”24 While, as Black studies scholar Roberto Strongman notes, some Africana scholars take issue with Oyěwùmí’s formulation, arguing that “pre-colonial” Yoruba society did indeed have a conception of gender, they largely would agree with Oyěwùmí that such conceptions were not based on biology or commensurable with normative Western conceptions.25 I hold space for both sides of the aisle with my use of the term “alter/non-genderings.”

How might normative gender’s unmappability within the Yoruba world-sense modulate one’s decipherment of Bronze Head? And how might such a decipherment hold on to a decidedly “queer” politics even after it has crossed the abyssal line? While, on one level, Bronze Head alludes to the non-procreative, state-policed act of “sodomy,” an imagined reversal of the direction between the figure and the statuette garners an alternative reading—one in which the figure’s anus additionally signifies as a vaginal canal that births the bronze head. The figure here becomes what the Yoruba call an Ìyá, which is often inaccurately translated into English as “mother,” with all its normative heteropatriarchal connotations. In What Gender Is Motherhood? Oyěwùmí argues against common-sensical (that is, Euro-America-centered) understandings of “motherhood,” refusing its bio-feminized gendering by situating its metaphysical encoding within Yoruba epistemes. According to Oyěwùmí, a truer translation of Ìyá is “life-giver,” one who cocreates humans with Ọbàtálá (the creator deity). Ìyá are therefore bestowed great socio-spiritual power—what Oyěwùmí identifies as the “matripotent principle”—as their relationship with their offspring derives not from the biological event of birth but from a prior metaphysical encounter in the otherworld where the orí of the offspring selects the orí of the Ìyá. Orí literally means “head,” though in Yoruba metaphysics, as orí-inu, it refers to the “inner head,” the seat of consciousness, and might relatedly be conceived as a kind of personal deity, a divine self, a spiritual essence that guides each human towards their fate or destiny in the physical world.26 This quasi-autonomous “inner-head” eludes consciousness and mediates interactions with entities from the otherworld, thereby exceeding Enlightenment conceptions of the person as unitary and enclosed.27 Ìyá’s life-giving power is symbolically conflated in Yoruba thought with the process of artistic creation, which is known as ọnàyiyaọnà, meaning “art,” and yiya (clearly derived from Ìyá), meaning “creation” or “making.”28 Bronze Head self-reflexively materializes these concepts by performing the mythos of birth in the darkened studio, a ritualized site of photographic production. By purposely centering a work of classical Yoruba art within its composition, the work indexes the figural prioritization of the head in Yoruba aesthetics, as it is the physical manifestation of oríorí-ode, meaning “outer-head.”

Through this disorienting oscillation of the Black figure as an Ìyá giving birth and as a male-presenting body self-enacting homoerotic sexual pleasure, Bronze Head gives palpable form to the invisibilized colonial matrices of power that subtend historical and contemporary articulations of gender and sexuality. Indeed, while Bronze Head bears the trace of Fani-Kayode’s subjectivation as a male-gendered, homosexual-identifying subject in the late twentieth century, its structural embedding of Yoruba thought shines a light on modernity/coloniality’s biocentric epistemic script—the condition of possibility for such identifications.29 This is because the image, though conscious of the alter/non-gendered Yoruba world-sense and its governing principles, embeds an anticipatory encounter with the normative gendering logics coming from across the domineering side of the modern/colonial abyssal line. Queerness in this text, then, does not only refer to nonnormative gender and sexual identifications as they’re commonly understood today (identifications which, relative to our times, are largely historical products of biocentric, Euro-modern epistemes, even though they have been negotiated globally30), but also to modes of being that unsettle and exceed Euro-America-centered conceptions of gender and sexuality tout court.

For this reason, we might situate Bronze Head, queerly, at multiple crossroads. A rather primary one is its revelation of colonial modernity’s abyssal line, and thus its location at the cognitive border between Western-centric and Yoruba onto-epistemological schemas—the former coming into being through the excision and denigration of the latter (and others akin to it). This decolonial revelation is the condition of possibility for the work’s queer ambiguation of non-procreative erotic pleasure and mytho-poeticized acts of (pro)creation, as well as its ritualized spectral positioning at the intersection of the physical world of the living (aye) and the immaterial world of the òrìṣàs, the living dead, and the unborn (ọrun).

This latter metaphysical orientation towards re-enchanted possibilities underscores Fani-Kayode’s mediatic intervention into the camera’s positivist and racialized logics of capture and indexation. In his 1987 text “Traces of Ecstasy”—also the title of a pavilion and exhibition project being developed for the forthcoming edition of the Lagos Biennial in February 2024—Fani-Kayode acknowledges he is working with a “western medium,” but additionally indicates his desire to undermine photography’s hegemonic tendency towards representing material reality in order to bring out a “spiritual dimension.”31 Important to note here is how Fani-Kayode’s striving “to approach a spiritual reality” is irreducibly entangled with his performative, ritualized production of the queer erotic. In other words, the queer erotic is utilized as a structuring vehicle for facilitating regenerative communions with the non-transcendent32 spirit world—a metaphysical pursuit with ethico-political implications that I will soon elaborate.

Crucially, Fani-Kayode evokes Èṣù, the Yoruba divine messenger who embodies the principles of fate, chance, and indeterminacy.33 Fani-Kayode writes, as if to appease the deity through textual invocation: “Esu presides here, because we should not forget him. He is the Trickster, the Lord of the Crossroads, sometimes changing the signposts to lead us astray … These images are offered now to Esu because he presides here.”34 Èṣù, the òrìṣà who is the “guardian of the ritual process”35 and who continuously crosses the boundaries between the two sutured worlds that constitute the animist Yoruba ontological scheme—that of the living and that of the spirits—becomes for Fani-Kayode an appropriate itinerant deity for mobilizing his queer, “decolonial spectropoetics.”36 This is to say that Fani-Kayode aesthetically routes (rather than merely roots) his material outsider status as a queer, diasporic African through Èṣù’s indeterminate metaphysical positionality. An amphibious cross-contamination of diasporic liquidity and indigenous solidity results from this ro(o/u)ting, giving rise to an ungovernable ante/anti-nationalist space of Afri-queer becoming, what Black and Indigenous studies scholar Tiffany Lethabo King theorizes as the “Black shoal.”37 Charged with the anarchist animus of indeterminacy, Fani-Kayode’s works dynamize and deterritorialize even the contours of Yoruba thought—reading against, through, and with it to identify generative queer erotic valences.

Fani-Kayode further writes that “Esu’s phallus enters the brain as if it were an asshole. He drags birth from the womb by means of a chain gangling from his own rectum. These are examples of his ‘little jokes.’”38 Here, Fani-Kayode queerly intimates a fleshly disarrangement of gendered signs while speaking to the underlying metaphysical principles of Yoruba thought, particularly as they pertain to rituals of ecstatic spirit possession. As the anthropologist Margaret Thompson Drewal explains, these rituals (as practiced by the Yoruba) constitute improvised and playful transformative practices in the way they “construct what reality is and how it is experienced and understood.”39 Drewal states that during such rituals, “the god is said to mount the devotee and, for a time, that devotee becomes the god.”40 In becoming divine receptacles or vessels, the devotees, regardless of their sexual anatomy, bear the symbolically feminized relational identity of an ìyàwó to the deity, often flattened into English as “wife.”41 Advancing the notion of “corporeal receptacularity,” Roberto Strongman theorizes the queer possibilities implied by these ecstatic possession rituals, noting how they allow the “regendering of the bodies of initiates, who are mounted and ridden by deities of a gender different from their own.”42 While the deity’s mounting is conventionally viewed as occurring through the devotee’s head—recall the metaphysical importance of orí-inu—Fani-Kayode playfully subverts the ecstatic point of entry as the figure’s anus in Bronze Head.

Ecstasy here thus simultaneously refers to states of riotous feeling spurred by sexual pleasures, and spiritual trance states. In works like Bronze Head, the queer erotic becomes a ritualistic catalyst for enabling such ecstatic trances, hence why Fani-Kayode and his long-term partner and collaborator, Alex Hirst, referred to the photograph’s ritualized conditions of production as mobilizing a “technique of ecstasy.”43 According to Fani-Kayode and Hirst, these ecstatic trances, as seen in Yoruba divination and possession rituals as well as masquerade performances, offer pathways for communicating with the spirit realm of the ancestors and the òrìṣàs.44 In this way, the works materialize a refusal of the Enlightenment’s attempts to divorce the erotic from the divine.45

Moreover, by transforming the photographic studio into a spiritio-militant arena for the performance of such ritualistic exercises, Fani-Kayode alters the ontological directives of the camera, the modern imaging apparatus par excellence. The photographs dramatize the impossibility of representing the spirit world within the field of racialized techno-scientific vision while indexing the unseeable life force that the invoked entities from this world bring into the physical realm during the ecstatic moment—what the Yoruba call àṣẹ. These images therefore surpass clear-cut designations as either critical, deconstructionist tools or positivist, iconographical representations. Instead, they might be viewed as talismanic objects invested with what Fani-Kayode called “spiritual antibodies,” which, in the context of Thatcher-era 1980s Britain, would heal the bodies of gay men, many of them Black, dying from the incompetently managed HIV/AIDS epidemic.46

This text, then, might be framed as an offering, an attempt at releasing latent animist lines of possibility for what late twentieth-century works like Bronze Head might do for us in our current climate of rising anti-queer sentiment, on the African continent and elsewhere.


The dissolution of erotic sensuality and spiritual communion via ecstatic trance traffics in a set of potentialities with worthwhile implications for the political-economic fault lines identified earlier. Such possibilities involve the transgression, expansion, and reorganization of the desires and horizons that configure the ongoing struggle of Africa’s decolonial liberation. In order to apprehend what is materially and metaphysically at stake here, let us recall that “ecstasy” is derived from the Latin word exstasis, roughly meaning “out of state”—a term with “demonic” implications for how modern subjectivity and nation-statehood might be thought.

Responding to Fani-Kayode’s works, art historian Kobena Mercer argues that they establish striking complementarities with George Bataille’s Dionysian theorizations on eroticism and ecstasy. Bataille famously writes that “pleasure is so close to ruinous waste that we refer to the moment of climax as ‘little death.’ Consequently anything that suggests erotic excess always implies disorder.”47 Thinking with Bataille, Mercer claims that the ecstatic, in dissolving the ego, creates the conditions of possibility for the entranced subject’s corporeal transcendence—a transgressive movement beyond the physical boundaries of the self, perhaps into a spiritual plane. Bataille’s theorization of ecstasy/eroticism as an entropic agent, as “that within man which calls his being in question,” finds affinities with Audre Lorde’s well-known treatise on the erotic: “The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.”48 Strongman situates Bataille’s ideas historically, noting that he (and I’ll add Lorde here too) belonged to a radical tradition of thinkers in the Global North attempting to amend the Enlightenment’s metaphysical consolidation of the hermetic, individuated Cartesian subject. This is the modern sovereign subject whose unitary soul, enclosed by the body, provides the justified means for the possession of private property and the ongoing enactment of colonial violence.49

Following Lorde’s decolonial call to “come more into touch with our own ancient, non-European consciousness of living,” Strongman offers a queer-inclined model of personhood based in West African philosophical traditions.50 Strongman’s formulation of “transcorporeality” poses the self as “multiple, removable and external to the body,” which “functions as its receptacle.”51 This West African conception of the self (presented in a complimentary yet weaker version by Bataille through the fugitive opening of the erotic) disarranges the racialized analytics of separability that would outline and cohere the Enlightenment subject, what Denise Ferreira da Silva calls the “Transparent I.”52

Image from the book African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design by Ron Eglash.

Via the fractal logics of indigenous African design,53 we might scale up the post-Enlightenment analytic of separability from the level of the individuated subject to that of the nation-state. For it is arguably the same modern/colonial analytic that upholds the notion of citizenship, a category which always already bears the trace of the noncitizen. This claim is brought into focus by modern European thinkers such as G. W. F. Hegel, for whom the state is the rational social realization of the unfolding will of individuated consciousness, of “Spirit.”54 If, as Frantz Fanon posed, “decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is clearly an agenda for total disorder,” then the ongoing struggle of decolonial liberation in Africa cannot find its terminus in the establishment of the nation-state, independent or otherwise, given that its existence is predicated on the preservation of modern/colonial orders of knowing and being.55

Though, as Fanon reminds us, lifeworlds endogenous to Africa have historically been instrumentalized by opportunistic ruling elites for their ethno-nationalist agendas, I argue that such self-serving hijackings of African indigenous possibilities ought not foreclose potentially liberatory future reanimations or, worse, maintain Euro-modern modes of cognition as the only viable option.56 As Lorde warns, “In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change.”57

I propose that by carefully tending to modernity/coloniality’s dynamic, resilient, constitutive-exterior zones, we might more richly apprehend the strictures of colonial reason and its material correlates of heteropatriarchal, necropolitical governmentality—especially with respect to the African postcolony, which assigns to queer subjects the symbolic status of the death-bound noncitizen. I further propose that the abolition of what Otu calls the “queer line” in contemporary African politics—a spectral rejoinder to W. E. B. Du Bois’s Pan-Africanist theorization of the problem of the color line—implies, in equal decolonial consideration, the abolition of the juridical infrastructures that uphold the nation-state.58 This ecstatic anarchist impulse, writes Black theology scholar J. Kameron Carter, is at the heart of a variety of African and African diasporic metaphysical schemas, which offer “an alternate cosmology of matter’s material multiplicity, a cosmology of the crossroads.”59 In apposition to the global sovereignty of colonial capitalist domination, we might find here, across the abyssal line, a knowing insistence on “the always incomplete-we,” an ecstatic refusal of the call to order.60


Sabelo Ndlovu Gatsheni, Coloniality of Power in Postcolonial Africa: Myths of Decolonisation (CODESRIA, 2013), 32. The colonial matrices of power may be conceived as a set of transhistorically adaptive hierarchical and heterarchical governing structures—operative on varying levels of abstraction, from the conceptual planes of ontology and epistemology to the more concrete, material registers of political economy—that have subjected the African continent, as well as Asia and Latin America, to five centuries of Euro-American domination. This text performs a continuous interrogative movement along these planes. See also Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine E. Walsh, On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, and Praxis (Duke University Press, 2018); Aníbal Quijano, “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality,” Cultural Studies 21, no. 2 (April 2007); and Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards The Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (Fall 2003).


The term “necropolitics” is borrowed from Achille Mbembe, who defines at it as the sovereign’s “power and capacity to dictate who is able to live and who must die.” This power, of course, is bound to a racialized calculus of which lives matter and which do not. See Necropolitics (Duke University Press, 2019).


Many of these bills make same-sex intimacy punishable by death or with decades/life-long imprisonment. Some examples include Uganda’s “Anti-Homosexuality Act,” passed in 2023; Ghana’s “Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill,” passed in 2023; and Nigeria’s “Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act,” passed in 2014. At present, queerness is formally criminalized in just over two-thirds of the countries that make up the African continent.


Sokari Ekine and Hakima Abbas, introduction to Queer African Reader (Pambazuka Press, 2013), 81. Ekine and Abbas also point out that such analyses are insufficient in accounting for queerphobic legislation in African countries colonized by other European powers such as France and Portugal, who didn’t impose such colonial penal codes.


Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (University of California Press, 2001), 46.


Thomas Sankara, the assassinated Pan-African socialist revolutionary and the first president of Burkina Faso, might have been one exception. In Women’s Liberation and the African Freedom Struggle, Sankara writes, “The transformation of mentalities would be incomplete if the new woman had to live with the old kind of man.”


Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí, The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses (University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 124–27.


Oyěwùmí, Invention of Women, 126. Oyěwùmí’s observations on the omnipotence of colonial state power resonate with Mbembe’s notion of “commandement,” which unveils the “colonial rationality” that guides the postcolonial state’s arbitrary, authoritarian exercises of power. See Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 24–65.


The references to Nzegwu and Amadiume are provided in footnote 23. See also Peter Ekeh, “Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa: A Theoretical Statement,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 17, no. 1 (January 1975).


See Keguro Macharia, “Ethnicity as Frottage in Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya,” in Frottage: Frictions of Intimacy across the Black Diaspora (NYU Press, 2019). See also Ekine and Abbas, introduction to Queer African Reader.


M. Jacqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred (Duke University Press, 2006), 25–27. I am referring here to contradictory yet equally denigrating colonial projections of African masculinity and African sexuality. In the first case, Black African men are emasculated through their infantilized rendering as “boys” in need of civilizational maturation. In the second case, both African men and women are constructed as beastly, hypersexualized entities unable to control their fleshly desires due to their diminished mental capacity for “reason”—a further justification for their domination.


Katherine McKittrick tethers her description of the “demonic” to its less ecclesiastical ascriptions in the fields of mathematics, physics, and computer science, stating that “the demonic, then, is a non-deterministic schema: it is a process that is hinged on uncertainty and non-linearity because the organizing principle cannot predict the future. This schema calls into question ‘the always non-arbitrary pre-prescribed’ parameters of sequential and classificatory linearity.” While my use of the term aligns with the above definition, I am also interested in what is implied by the original ecclesiastical ascription, and what it says about Christian theology’s entanglement with the logic of colonial modernity—in other words, that the term’s reference to one’s possession by spirits (a defining characteristic of plural non-Western cosmologies) betrays an anxiety over the sovereign disintegration of the individuated modern subject. See Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), xxiv.


See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (Pantheon Books, 1978).


Kwame Edwin Otu, Amphibious Subjects: Sasso and the Contested Politics of Queer Self-Making in Neoliberal Ghana (University of California Press, 2022), 7–8. Otu discusses how LGBT+ human rights groups assimilate and flatten indigenous social classifications such as “sasso,” which in the Ghanian context designates “self-identified effeminate men, men and women who engaged in homoerotic sex, and men who act effeminately (but are not self-identified effeminate men) and women who act masculinely.”


Rahul Rao, Out of Time: The Queer Politics of Postcoloniality (Oxford University Press, 2020), 11.


Rao, Out of Time, 25, 136.


Otu, Amphibious Subjects, 79.


Fani-Kayode’s father, a fixture of the political elite, was involved in the struggle for Nigeria’s independence. Following the formation of the First Republic in 1960 he was elected deputy premier, as well as minister of local affairs, of the Western Region (at the time, one of the three units of the federal administration). The artist’s father was also the Balogun of Ife (a ceremonial chieftaincy role), and so his family had custodial responsibilities over a shrine in Ife—a town of central importance to Yoruba history and mythology. In 1966, Fani-Kayode’s father was ousted from power by a military coup and, unlike most of his colleagues in senior political positions, was able to escape assassination. After a countercoup six months later, which kicked off the Nigerian Civil War, the Fani-Kayode family relocated to Brighton, a small seaside town in Britain, when the artist was eleven years old. Fani-Kayode attended various schools in the UK and eventually went to Georgetown University in Washington, DC, thereafter attended the Pratt institute in New York, and then settled in London in 1983, where he produced work for the final six years of his life.


Explicit references to gay Euro-American subcultures are made especially evident in photographs such as Nothing to Lose IX (Bodies of Experience) (1989), where the figure dons a leather bondage harness. These contemporary, sexualized garments appear alongside ritualized objects such as masks, altars, totems, and divining substances. Ian Bourland provides a detailed account of Fani-Kayode’s artistic formation vis-à-vis the countercultural movements of 1980s Britain in Bloodflowers: Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Photography, and the 1980s (Duke University Press, 2019).


Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide (Routledge, 2014), 3–4.


Santos, Epistemologies of the South, 8.


Oyěwùmí, Invention of Women, 13–14.


For other decolonial feminist engagements that similarly cross this abyssal line, see: Maria Lugones, “Towards a Decolonial Feminism,” Hypatia 25, no. 4 (Fall 2010), as well as “Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System,” Hypatia 22, no. 1 (Winter, 2007); Ifi Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society (Zed Press, 1987); Nkiru Nzegwu, Family Matters: Feminist Concepts in African Philosophy of Culture (State University of New York Press, 2006); Françoise Vergès, A Decolonial Feminism, trans. Ashley J. Bohrer (Pluto Press, 2021).


Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí, What Gender Is Motherhood? Changing Yorùbá Ideals of Power, Procreation and Identity in the Age of Modernity (Palgrave MacMillan, 2016), 7.


Strongman offers J. Land Matory’s counterargument proposing gender as a “long-standing reality of Yorúbà social life.” Strongman cites Matory’s anthropological observation of “sacramental cross-dressing” where, for example, male Ṣàngó priests wear garments associated with the female gender. Matory’s thinking would seem to compliment Fani-Kayode’s mention of “transexual priests” and Margaret Drewal’s theorization of Yoruba rituals as creating the conditions for improvised “gender play.” See Roberto Strongman, Queering Black Atlantic Religions: Transcorporeality in Candomblé, Santería, and Vodou (Duke University Press, 2019), 22. See also Rotimi Fani-Kayode, “Traces of Ecstasy” (1987), in Rotimi Fani-Kayode & Alex Hirst: Photographs (Autograph and Revue Noir, 1996), 9; and Margaret Thompson Drewal, Yoruba Ritual: Performers, Play, Agency (Indiana University Press, 1992).


Knowing or fulfilling one’s destiny is a complicated matter, however, and is the point of consulting Ifá priests who perform divination rituals. Destiny is also not fixed and is co-constituted by ẹsẹ, variably known as “struggle” and “effort.” See Oludamini Ogunnaike, Deep Knowledge: Ways of Knowing in Sufism and Ifa, Two West African Intellectual Traditions (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2020), 243–44.


The Yoruba metaphysical conception of self finds strong affinities with the detailed accounts of other West African and Afro-diasporic philosophical traditions offered by Strongman, all of which, he argues, problematize and exceed post-Enlightenment Cartesian formulations. See Queering Black Atlantic Religions, 10, 19.


Babatunde Lawal, quoted in Oyěwùmí, What Gender Is Motherhood?, 66–67.


Distinguishing between same-sex desire and sexual identity, Fani-Kayode himself writes: “It is clear that enriching sexual relationships between members of the same sex have always existed. They are part of the human condition, even if the concept of sexual identity is a more recent notion.” Fani-Kayode, “Traces of Ecstasy,” 8.


Otu discusses how, among the sasso in Ghana, local negotiations of gender and sexuality vis-à-vis Global North LGBT+ interpellations give rise to shifting self-identifications dependent on context. Otu indigenizes this malleable mode of queer embodiment by drawing on philosopher Kwame Gyeke’s notion of “amphibious subjectivity” and his extensive study of Akan philosophy. Strongman also brings in Gyeke as well as Kwasi Wiredu (another Ghanaian philosopher) to discuss the tripartite Akan conception of the self and its queer possibilities. See Otu, Amphibious Subjects, 99, and Strongman, Queering Black Atlantic Religions, 11. See also Kwame Gyeke, An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme (Temple University Press, 1995); and Kwasi Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective (Indiana University Press, 1996).


Fani-Kayode, “Traces of Ecstasy,” 6.


Though a delicate metaphysical point, I would like to clarify here a different orientation towards the spirit world, one in which this world is not conceived as purely transcendent—in other words, only existing remotely in a heavenly elsewhere, as in the Judeo-Christian conception. Rather, according to Yoruba, Akan, and other indigenous African/Afro-diasporic cosmologies, the invisible spirit world bears an entangled, proximate relation to the earthly world of the living. This sutured relation of the world of the living to that of the ancestors and the deities gives rise to an understanding of the cosmos as one composed from the interaction of visible and invisible forces. It is from this conception of reality, which acknowledges human-spirit sociality, that I use the term “animism.” See Murray Hofmeyr, “From Hauntology to a New Animism? Nature and Culture in Heinz Kimmerle’s Intercultural Philosophy,” TD: The Journal for Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa 3, no. 1 (July 2007).


Kobena Mercer, “Mortal Coil: Eros and Diaspora in the Photographs of Rotimi Fani-Kayode,” in Travel & See: Black Diaspora Art Practices since the 1980s (Duke University Press, 2016), 116.


Mercer, “Mortal Coil,” 117.


Henry John Drewal, John Pemberton III, and Rowland Abiodun, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought (Center for African Art, 1989), 22.


The term “spectropoetic” was coined by Derrida in Specters of Marx, but I have adapted it in my critical and curatorial practice to theorize, via experimental photographic and moving-image aesthetics, the conjunction of the paradigms of the hauntological and the postcolonial. I mobilize the term “decolonial spectropoetics” in two ways: first, to discuss artworks that materialize the inherent spectrality of the contemporary African postcolonial condition—the kaleidoscopic entanglement of the non-pastness of slavery and colonization with the non-arrived futurity of abolition and decolonization; and second, to discuss how such artworks reveal the structuring absences of Euro-centered formulations of hauntology through their structural incorporation of African indigenous systems of thought, many of which, I argue, are always already “hauntological.” See Living with Ghosts: A Reader, ed. KJ Abudu (Pace Publishing, 2022); and KJ Abudu, “Living with Ghosts: Decolonial Spectropoetics in Contemporary African Art” (unpublished master’s thesis, Columbia University, New York, 2022).


Tiffany Lethabo King, The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies (Duke University Press, 2019).


Mercer, “Mortal Coil,” 117.


Margaret Thompson Drewal, Yoruba Ritual: Performers, Play, Agency (Indiana University Press, 1992), 174.


Drewal, Yoruba Ritual, 183.


Oyěwùmí, What Gender Is Motherhood?, 71.


Strongman, Queering Black Atlantic Religions, 3.


Fani-Kayode, “Traces of Ecstasy,” 1996.


Spiritual entities from the otherworld have historically been called upon for tactical wisdom and enduring strength in the Black Atlantic world, especially during moments of personal and collective crisis. We might recall the Haitian Revolution of 1791, wherein voodoo ritual became what C. L. R. James calls the “medium of conspiracy” for the counter-modern rebellion of the enslaved. See Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (University of North Carolina Press, 1983), 147, 275.


Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing, 281.


Mercer, “Mortal Coil,” 118.


Georges Bataille, Eroticism: Death and Sensuality (City Light Books, 1962), 170.


Bataille, Eroticism, 29; Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” in Sister Outsider, 54, italics mine .


Strongman, Queering Black Atlantic Religions, 10, 19.


Audre Lorde, “Poetry Is Not A Luxury,” in Sister Outsider, 37.


Strongman, Queering Black Atlantic Religions, 2.


Denise Ferreira da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race (University of Minnesota Press, 2007).


See Ron Eglash, African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design (Rutgers University Press, 1999).


Eglash, African Fractals, 82­–83.


Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (Grove Press, 1963), 2.


Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 145–80.


Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic,” 53.


Otu, Amphibious Subjects, 21.


Influenced by Cedric J. Robinson and Charles H. Long, Carter unpacks “anarchy” etymologically as an-archē in Greek. Echoing Sylvia Wynter, Carter argues that colonial capitalist modernity is premised on the reproduction of a particular “Enlightenment archē,” a “specific foundation or principle of sovereignty or rule,” which came into being in the mid-fifteenth century. An-archē, then, which implies a fugitive movement away from racial capitalism’s archē, is embodied most fully by the Black radical tradition and its “spiritual vocation,” inclusive of all its African cosmological transferences. See J. Kameron Carter, The Anarchy of Black Religion: A Mystic Song (Duke University Press, 2023), 11.


Carter, The Anarchy of Black Religion, 19.

Race & Ethnicity, Photography, Contemporary Art, Colonialism & Imperialism, LGBTQ+, Indigenous Issues & Indigeneity, Sexuality & Eroticism
Blackness, Queer Art & Theory, Africa, Postcolonial Theory, Decolonization, Modernity
Return to Issue #139

KJ Abudu is a curator and critic based between New York, London, and Lagos. Informed by anti/post/de-colonial theory, queer theory, African philosophy, and Black radical thought, his writings and exhibitions focus on critical art and intellectual practices from the Global South (particularly Africa and its diasporas) responding to the world-historical conditions produced by colonial modernity. Recent exhibitions include “Clocking Out: Time Beyond Management” at Artists Space and e-flux Screening Room, New York, May 2023, and “Living with Ghosts” at Pace Gallery, London, 2022, and the Wallach Art Gallery, New York, 2022. Abudu is the editor of Living with Ghosts: A Reader (Pace Publishing, 2022). Abudu will also be curating “Traces of Ecstasy” for the fourth edition of the Lagos Biennial in 2024. His writings have appeared in Frieze, e-flux, Mousse, Tate Etc., and numerous other publications and exhibition catalogs. KJ recently joined the curatorial team at the Swiss Institute (SI), New York, and will be overseeing their public programs and residencies.


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