The Erotic Tombs of Madagascar

On the Western coast of Madagascar live the Sakalava people, a rather diverse ethnic group; their population is in fact composed of the descendants of numerous peoples that formed the Menabe Kingdom. This empire reached its peak in the Eighteenth Century, thanks to an intense slave trade with the Arabs and European colonists.

One of the most peculiar aspects of Sakalava culture is undoubtedly represented by the funerary sculptures which adorn burial sites. Placed at the four corners of a grave, these carved wooden posts are often composed by a male and a female figure.
But these effigies have fascinated the Westerners since the 1800s, and for a very specific reason: their uninhibited eroticism.

In the eyes of European colonists, the openly exhibited penises, and the female genitalia which are in some cases stretched open by the woman’s hands, must have already been an obscene sight; but the funerary statues of the Sakalava even graphically represent sexual intercourse.

These sculptures are quite unique even within the context of the notoriously heterogeneous funerary art of Madagascar. What was their meaning?

We could instinctively interpret them in the light of the promiscuity between Eros and Thanatos, thus falling into the trap of a wrongful cultural projection: as Giuseppe Ferrauto cautioned, the meaning of these works “rather than being a message of sinful «lust», is nothing more than a message of fertility” (in Arcana, vol. II, 1970).

A similar opinion is expressed by Jacques Lombard, who extensively ecplained the symbolic value of the Sakalava funerary eroticism:

We could say that two apparently opposite things are given a huge value, in much the same manner, among the Sakalava as well as among all Madagascar ethnic groups. The dead, the ancestors, on one side, and the offspring, the lineage on the other. […] A fully erect – or «open» – sexual organ, far from being vulgar, is on the contrary a form of prayer, the most evident display of religious fervor. In the same way the funerals, which once could go on for days and days, are the occasion for particularly explicit chants where once again love, birth and life are celebrated in the most graphic terms, through the most risqué expressions. In this occasion, women notably engage in verbal manifestations, but also gestural acts, evoking and mimicking sex right beside the grave.
[…] The extended family, the lineage, is the point of contact between the living and the dead but also with all those who will come, and the circle is closed thanks to the meeting with all the ancestors, up to the highest one, and therefore with God and all his children up to the farthest in time, at the heart of the distant future. To honor one’s ancestors, and to generate an offspring, is to claim one’s place in the eternity of the world.

Jacques Lombard, L’art et les ancêtres:
le dialogue avec les morts: l’art sakalava
in Madagascar: Arts De La Vie Et De La Survie
(Cahiers de l’ADEIAO n.8, 1989)

One last thing worth noting is the fact that the Sakalava exponentially increased the production of this kind of funerary artifacts at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
For a simple reason: in order to satisfy the naughty curiosity of Western tourists.

You can find a comprehensive account of the Sakalava culture on this page.

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 9

Let’s start with some quick updates.

Just three days left till the end of the Bizzarro Bazar Contest. I received so many fantastic entries, which you will discover next week when the winners are announced. So if you’re among the procrastinators, hurry up and don’t forget to review the guidelines: this blog has to be explicitly mentioned/portrayed within your work.

On October 1st I will be at Teatro Bonci in Cesena for the CICAP Fest 2017 [CICAP is a skeptical educational organization.]
As this year’s edition will focus on fake news, hoaxes and post-truth, I was asked to bring along some wonders from my wunderkammer — particularly a bunch of objects that lie between truth and lies, between reality and imagination. And, just to be a bit of a rebel, I will talk about creative hoaxes and fruitful conspiracies.

As we are mentioning my collection, I wanted to share my enthusiasm for one of the last arrivals: this extraordinary work of art.

I hear you say “Well, what’s so special about it?“. Oh, you really don’t understand modern art, do you?
This picture, dated 2008, was painted by the famous artist Jomo.

Here’s Jomo:

Here’s Jomo as a bronze statuette, acquired along with the painting.

Exactly, you guessed it: from now on I will be able to pull  the good old Pierre Brassau prank on my house guests.
I was also glad the auction proceeds for the gorilla painting went to the Toronto Zoo personnel, who daily look after these wonderful primates. By the way, the Toronto Zoo is an active member of the North American Gorilla Species Survival Plan and also works in Africa to save endangered gorillas (who I was surprised to find are facing extinction because of our cellphones).

And now let’s start with our usual selection of goodies:

She’d given me rendez-vous in a graveyard / At midnight – and I went: / Wind was howling, dark was the sky / The crosses stood white before the churchyard; / And to this pale young girl I asked: / – Why did you give me rendez-vous in a graveyard? / – I am dead, she answered, and you do not know: / Would you lay down beside me in this grave? / Many years ago I loved you, alive, / For many a year the merciless tomb sealed me off… / Cold is the ground, my beloved youth! / I am dead, she answered, and you do not know.

  • This is a poem by Igino Ugo Tarchetti, one of the leading figures in the Scapigliatura, the most bizarre, gothic and “maudit” of all Italian literary movements. (My new upcoming book for the Bizzarro Bazar Collection will also deal, although marginally, with the Scapigliati.)

  • And let’s move onto shrikes, these adorable little birds of the order of the Passeriformes.
    Adorable, yet carnivore: their family name, Laniidae, comes from the Latin word for “butcher” and as a matter of fact, being so small, they need to resort to a rather cruel ploy. After attacking a prey (insects but also small vertebrates), a shrike proceeds to impale it on thorns, small branches, brambles or barbed wire, in order to immobilize it and then comfortably tear it to pieces, little by little, while often still alive — making Vlad Tepes look like a newbie.

  • Talking about animals, whales (like many other mammals) mourn their dead. Here’s a National Geographic article on cetacean grief.
  • Let’s change the subject and talk a bit about sex toys. Sexpert Ayzad compiled the definitive list of erotic novelties you should definitely NOT buy: these ultra-kitsch, completely demented and even disturbing accessories are so many that he had to break them into three articles, one, two and three. Buckle up for a descent into the most schizoid and abnormal part of sexual consumerism (obviously some pics are NSFW).
  • Up next, culture fetishists: people who describe themselves as “sapiosexuals”, sexually attracted by intelligence and erudition, are every nerd’s dream, every introverted bookworm’s mirage.
    But, as this article suggests, choosing an intelligent partner is not really such a new idea: it has been a part of evolution strategies for millions of years. Therefore those who label themselves as sapiosexual on social networks just seem pretentious and eventually end up looking stupid. Thus chasing away anyone with even a modicum of intelligence. Ah, the irony.

  • Meanwhile The LondoNerD, the Italian blog on London’s secrets, has discovered a small, eccentric museum dedicated to Sir Richard Francis Burton, the adventurer whose life would be enough to fill a dozen Indiana Jones movies. [Sorry, the post is in Italian only]

Someone fixed giraffes, at last.


Dimitri Tsykalov è un artista russo. Utilizza diverse tecniche di scultura per trasformare oggetti comuni in opere d’arte stupefacenti e metaforicamente stimolanti.

Ha cominciato costruendo alcune installazioni che ricreano completamente in legno oggetti che normalmente sono composti di altri materiali: in questo interno di una camera, ad esempio, tutto, dal cuscino alle coperte, al computer, al lavandino, al WC, ogni cosa è interamente scolpita nel legno.

In seguito, ha costruito una Porsche a grandezza naturale, ancora in legno. Le sue sono opere d’arte che ci spingono a guardare diversamente certi aspetti della realtà. Deperiscono velocemente di fronte agli occhi degli spettatori: in un certo senso, offrono delle forme vuote e biodegradabili, come se tutta la nostra tecnologia fosse votata alla distruzione. Questa Porsche non è altro che un segno, riconoscibile, ma il materiale di cui è composta ci rende visibile il suo destino ineluttabile. Basterebbe un po’ d’acqua per rovinarla completamente, e prima o poi la sua struttura si disintegrerà, distruggendo contemporaneamente il simbolo con tutti i valori che ad esso sono connessi.

Stesso discorso vale per gli organi umani in legno: sembrano fissi ed eterni, ma esibiscono anche una fragilità che conosciamo bene, anche se raramente ci soffermiamo a rifletterci.

Per rendere ancora più chiaro il concetto, Tsykalov è poi passato a scolpire teschi ricavati da vegetali: la “vita” di queste opere è ancora minore. Risulta chiaro che le sue non sono altro che moderne vanitas, destinate a ricordarci la futilità delle nostre esistenze.

Ma è con la sua ultima opera che Tsykalov ha davvero creato qualcosa di unico e impressionante. Intitolata MEAT (“carne”), la serie ci mostra i corpi nudi di diversi modelli che impugnano armi fatte di carne, indossano elmetti scolpiti a partire da bistecche e insaccati, sono imprigionati da catene di salsicce.

Queste fotografie toccano alcuni punti precisi del nostro sistema simbolico. Da una parte, ammiccano alla (con)fusione di carne e metallo che gran parte ha avuto nell’iconografia post-moderna. Dall’altra, mostrano una guerra fatta di carne e sangue, in cui l’avanzata tecnologia non appare più fredda e metallica, ma costruita con le stesse logiche del macello. Inoltre, l’utilizzo di hot-dog, hamburger e altre forme di consumo della carne, riporta tutto all’idea del cibo. La bellezza dei modelli contrasta con le macabre situazioni in cui sono coinvolti.

La rappresentazione di Tsykalov mira a mostrare l’essere umano per ciò che è veramente. Un’accozzaglia di bellezza e putridume, violenza ed estasi, bisogni animaleschi e illusioni razionalistiche. Ed è proprio sui simboli che Tsykalov lavora più efficacemente: vedere una bandiera (che potrebbe essere qualsiasi bandiera) completamente composta di carne macellata non può che far riflettere.