The Puppeteer

The West African puppeteer lurches, leans and sways, giving himself over to the demands of his carved creation. He is at once ajogi, a Yoruba dancer of the wooden image, and nyamakala, a Mandé force-handler, as he pulls on the ropes and rods of some of the oldest and richest of Africa’s surviving puppetry traditions.

The heads of two West African puppets articulated at the mouth and adorned with cowrie shells, awaiting the puppeteer.
African Puppets. Photography: Pascale Gauthier-Dionne

The Puppeteer, “Dancer of the Wooden Image”

The ground vibrates with the rhythm of the djembé. The puppeteer-dancer moves through space with the mastery and the responsibility that can only be assumed by an initiate. And he moves through time, drawing on the traditional world of masquerades, mask dances, and object practices from which he has come.

He has inherited a rich gestural legacy, that of ancient healers once coaxing divinatory figures along toe strings (Burkina Faso), of full-body mask performers that surrender their human identities to Gèlèdé (Benin) and Sogo Bò (Mali) masquerades, of generations of secretive societies, such as the ekon (Ibibio) or kamalen tonw (Bambara)that “explore, construct and intensify their identity through the art of puppetry”.* 

The puppeteer of West Africa is lyrical, satirical. He entertains, inspires, reveals, and readjusts the values of his society, of which puppets are deemed to be the soul.

The Puppet

“The puppet rises up really gently, he stands, he watches … One feels like one handles the puppet but actually it’s the contrary – it’s the puppet who handles the puppeteer.”

― Yaya Coulibaly
A traditional stringed puppet by puppeteer and puppet-maker, Yaya Coulibaly.
Photography: Pascale Gauthier-Dionne

The puppet rises, propped up by ancient forces that are believed to inhabit and animate all objects.  It holds within it the residue of ancestral spirits,  “relics of stranger uses, the sacral and the playful together, surviving into the present in disguise”.**

It stands. It watches. It looks towards its past, its mythological origins — of being uplifted from the land of the dead by the Ibibio (Nigeria), of being retrieved from mystical waters (Guinea), or of being gifted by genies to the Bozo fishing village of Gomitogo (Mali). It turns towards the present, taking its place in the existing social world, an emergence that the Bozo and Sòmòno refer to as do bò, “the secret comes forth”.

Typically carved, cared for, and infused with life by the specialized blacksmith caste from which contemporary puppeteers, like Malian Yaya Coulibaly descend, the puppet is “a separate, articulate whole, capable of surprising its owner with its movements, the stories it tells”.** 

The Togolese puppet master Danaye Kalanfie still refers to the puppet as a “fetish”, evocative of lost worlds yet endowed with enough power to prod, praise, parody, provoke, and playfully push into the West African future.

The Epic of Sundiata, puppet theater, Yaya Coulibaly
The Epic of Sundiata, founder of the Mali Empire, passed down through generations / Nouveau Théâtre Expérimental . Photography: Pascale Gauthier-Dionne

“Puppets are the soul of our society … They teach us values such as tolerance, peace, and sharing. They instruct us about history and the occult. They are judges, satirists, and political commentators.”

― Yaya Coulibaly

Sources and Further Reading

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