Puppetry is the soul of the people of Mali

Published Sep 14, 2004


By Dawn Kennedy

Yaya Coulibaly embodies the complexities and contradictions of Africa. He tells me he is one of the happiest men in the world and one of the unhappiest at the same time. He is happy because he is the custodian of the Bambara puppetry tradition and unhappy because he is watching this heritage get eaten by insects and ravaged by weather.

He is making an urgent appeal for help to save this incredible collection of puppets. An exhibition at the Irma Stern Museum displays 60 of the finest pieces and affords Capetonians a peephole into an ancient tradition, until recently shrouded in secrecy.

Coulibaly comes from seven generations of puppeteers. He is a direct descendant of Mamari Biton Coulibaly, king of the Segou region of Mali during the 17th century.

He unified the people, who practised animism, and they became known as Bambara (or Bamana). Today these 2,5 million people form the largest ethnic group within Mali and occupy the central part of the country.

Coulibaly began his initiation into the magical world of puppets and masquerade figures as an apprentice to his father at the age of 10.

Later he studied art at the Bamako National Institute of the Arts and the puppet theatre at the Institute International de la Marionette in France.

He formed his puppet troupe, Sogolon, in 1980 and has since become the leading custodian of the Bambara puppetry tradition, the oldest and richest of Africa's surviving puppetry traditions.

Coulibaly is proud of his hospitality, yet even he cannot cope with sharing his home with thousands.

Visitors to his house struggle to find space. His 14 children compete with the wooden creations stacked against the wall, a frozen, human sapling forest.

Musokoroni, a faithful old woman, and Koromoga, chief of the hunt, are just a few of the characters you will meet there.

Shrewd American, German and Dutch collectors beg to buy his pieces but Coulibaly, with all the patience and immovability of Africa, shakes his head slowly.

They cannot understand how he can live as a poor person when he has all these puppets to sell. But for Coulibaly the sacred is not up for grabs. He is guardian of a heritage that gives him wealth beyond material measure.

Puppets have always had magical connotations. They are located in the magic field between illusion and reality, connecting the invisible world of the supernatural and the visible world of the human.

The relationship between puppet and puppeteer mirrors the relation between man and God. It is utterly symbiotic. Neither can function, or come to life, without the other.

The puppet needs the master to pull the strings and the master needs the puppet as a vehicle for his creativity in the world.

Ancient man understood himself symbolically as a puppet of the Gods, and puppetry mirrors this understanding of the cosmic scheme of things.

Puppetry also serves a moral function. Punch, for example, is an immortal figure from British culture who thumbs his nose at convention, gives those in authority a sound walloping with his trusty slapstick and - in the classic version of the story - defeats even the devil himself.

Tooth extractor Mr Mourguet created the famous French Guignol puppet to create a jovial atmosphere during the terrifying event of having a tooth pulled.

Behind these characters stands the archetype of the Trickster - a magical figure found in most mythologies who uses his cunning, mischief and wits to surprise, shock and transform.

However, the European puppetry tradition has become something of a historical oddity. The young, desensitised by video and television, find the medium tedious and old fashioned.

In Mali there is no sneering adolescent detachment. Coulibaly says puppetry is "the soul of the people".

It performs a valuable social function and brings people together for at least three festivals a year. Everybody has a role, clearly prescribed by sex and age.

Coulibaly speaks didactically. Bathed in tradition, he is sure of himself in a way Europeans steeped in self-questioning might find boastful. He in turn would no doubt find them utterly ignorant of their place in the scheme of things.

He lists the benefits of puppets: Puppeteers are perfect men; puppetry develops human qualities and the first wealth is the human; the puppet theatre acts as a school which serves as a society of initiation; a puppeteer is well educated and has acquired the maximum knowledge.

Pointing to his tongue, shaking his head and lifting his eyebrows Coulibaly says fiercely that he hasn't got two tongues: "when I say yes I say yes, when I say no, I say no."

When he does something he does it with his whole heart, "like a pelican" - an image a little lost on me.

Coulibaly has reverence for his puppets and is in constant communion with them. He sleeps with one beside each ear and they whisper advice to him throughout the night.

He says that the puppets teach him about his limits. By entering into different personas he learns that in the other person there is a part of him.

Coulibaly makes the rather grand claim that puppets have made Mali a crossroads of art and civilisation because they teach a deep respect for diversity in unity, which allows Malian people to be tolerant. Certainly, Malians are very diplomatically able to resolve problems.

The puppets function in the same way as the Greek myths. They allow observers to learn about themselves by seeing human qualities in dramas writ large on a grand, archetypal scale.

The puppets are magical, fetishistic objects. "They remind you of the magical moment of connection," says Coulibaly. They play an important role in initiation ceremonies.

In Bamara culture, young men are circumcised and initiated at 15. At 20 they are taught to walk on thorns, to accept pain and have warrior courage.

At 25 they are taught to hunt and kill, respect the order of things and can have their first contact with power objects.

At 35 they are considered mature and have earned the right to keep power objects. At 45 they have wisdom. Women pass through similar stages of initiation.

Ceremonies that centre on puppet performances mark each of these stages. They are night-long performances. As the evening progresses more mature initiates perform with more powerful puppets .

As the power of the puppets increases, the number of people allowed to observe decreases, until finally the most secret ceremonies are performed with only those participating present.

Coulibaly is a member of the most secret and sacred circle. Only a woman five years after menopause or a virgin girl can join this inner sanctum. In Bambara tradition, Coulibaly claims women and men are equally respected and always complement each other.

Coulibaly speaks about "getting the knowledge out of the puppet". You have to go inside some puppets, "just as a child has to go into the womb of its mother".

The sogow represent mythical animals and human beings. The body of the animal is around 2m-long and 1,5m-high, and covered with cloth which conceals two to three puppeteers inside who manipulate the rod puppets. The head of the animal is a large rod puppet. Smaller rod puppets are sometimes carried on the back of the animal or attached to its horns.

The dramatis personae are humans, spirits and mythical animals, metaphors for the full range of human virtues and vices.

Animals of the Savannah are represented in the form of antelopes, buffaloes, birds and domesticated animals.

The bush buffalo, Sigi, symbolises strength and the power of tradition. On his back he may carry women pounding millet, a crocodile, a mother-with-child, musicians and a female dancer.

Each animal dances according to his character, and so Sigi's dance is slow and stately. At times the animal stops to give the smaller rod puppets on its back a chance to go through their motions: the women pound, the farmer hoes, the musicians play and the dancer twirls around.

Living in the temperate Mediterranean climate of Cape Town, it is difficult to image the ravages that climate and insects can inflict. With all our technology, surely a little spray here and there should sort out Coulibaly's problem?

It is not just the tiny drilling insect that bores into the puppets that he has to battle against, but the very climate. In Mali during March and April a humid wind blows from the desert and the puppets absorb dust. In May and June the rains come and the wood of the puppets expands and cracks. Also the puppets' fabric rots and many of the grand, celestial figures are beginning to look very threadbare.

It was a Bambara puppet that inspired the handspring puppet company. Founder Adrian Cohler bought one from Vitorino Meneghelli's Jeppe Street Gallery for R120.

His friend, Basil, was working for the Botswana National Museum and Art Gallery, and wrote to Meneghhelli asking about the puppet's origins. It turned out he had a small collection of about 36 which he allowed to be exhibited in Botswana.

Months later Adrian announced he wanted to start a puppet company in South Africa. The Bambara puppets persuaded Basil that puppetry was a vital part of African tradition and he agreed to go along with the wild scheme.

Twelve years later and the Handspring Puppet Company has received international acclaim. At the Grahamstown Arts Festival, Alicia Adams, vice-president at the John F Kennedy Centre, proposed that they do a play with a Malian puppet theatre.

The centre hosted initial meetings and provided financial support for what turned out to be a seven-year project.

Coulibaly's family home was a far cry from the Kennedy centre. Basil describes the culture shock: "we were astonished. The house on four levels was filled with puppets. There were scores and scores of puppets on shelves, in crates, in sacks and simply lying on the floor."

These ranged from small, hand-held puppets to 3m-high habitable figures.

Basil realised they constituted a major treasure, but one that desperately needed preservation. Some dated from the early 19th century.

Puppets age quickly and are usually discarded once they have served their purpose. It is very rare to find even one old puppet from the Italian puppetry tradition at an auction.

"How much more extraordinary it is to have a collection numbering in the thousands in the hands of an African family - given our continent's history of conquest and appropriation," basil writes in the beautifully illustrated brochure that accompanies the exhibition at the Irma Stern Museum.

The collaboration between continents and cultures has culminated in Tall Horse, currently being performed at the Baxter.

Coulibaly speaks positively about the production, assuring me he is not just advertising. Looking me earnestly in the eye, he says he questions himself every day in order to go forward.

He describes the production as formidable and a great opportunity to understand the relationship between Africa and Europe from an African perspective.

He relished the opportunity to see another way of working with puppets. Malian puppeteers are very strong and the South Africans are not used to such physicality.

"It's amusing," says Coulibaly, laughing to himself about some remembered incident.

Handspring company puppeteers usually work with a box in front of the puppets which they lean on. In Mali the whole puppet is lifted and sometimes the puppeteers climb inside.

Currently only four of the cast are Malian. Coulibaly feels it is imbalanced. It is not enough, but it is a beginning, he says.

Concurrent to the performance is the exhibition of puppets and masks on display at the Irma Stern Museum until September 27. The exhibition consists of 60 of the best pieces, selected from Coulibaly's collection of over 1 000.

Traditional African art is too much of a rarity in Cape Town and this exhibition is a treat. It contains puppets still in use and some boliw power puppets that are seen only by the initiated in important rites of passage.

The items are rich in symbolism and cannot be understood outside the context of an extremely complex culture. The Bamara are animists and these objects are imbued with magic.

Central to their philosophy is an acceptance of opposites.

Social relations and individual development are understood as opposing forces. The one, badenya, emphasises social solidarity, respect for authority and co-operation, while the other, fadenya, comprises rivalry, courage and assertiveness.

The two forces come together and complement each other in a socially competent male.

Harmony and compromise between opposite forces can be seen to operate in the puppets, which show symmetry and a balance of form.

Coulibaly constantly speaks of synthesis - things being neither one thing or another, but both: Africa is the wealthiest and the poorest nation, the oldest and the youngest; Europe has colonised Africa but Africa has colonised Europe culturally, he says.

Soon all the puppets will be out from under his feet. He worries and frets over them like an anxious parent. With so many young children around they are a huge fire hazard.

He has procured a 500m2 space but needs money for construction scheduled to start in October.

The building will comprise a museum, school, library and stage. He intends to provide accommodation for people coming to research the puppets.

At the centre of the project is a baobab tree. Bamana used to bury their dead inside "the tree of the spirits".

Every week an old person would be invited to talk under the tree. People would gather to drink specially brewed beer. All the decisions taken under the tree are wise decisions, says Coulibaly. He estimates the total cost of the project will be €120 000 (about R1-million). It seems a small price to pay to preserve such a precious heritage. Coulibaly wants everybody to bring something. Just as during the festival every woman has to offer a piece of fabric to the puppet, so each country should offer something to their preservation, he believes. Some can offer money, others technical advice. Coulibaly says Africa has a lot of wealth to show the world, but has lost a lot of time in terms of co-operating.

He continues: "When you want to change history, all of history must have a say." Coulibaly is a man sure of his place in the world. V S Naipaul, winner of the Nobel prize for literature, writes in his latest work, Magic Seeds: "Africans have the edge on us. They know who they are."

Coulibaly exhibits this perfectly. He says: "I am a man useful to myself, useful to society and useful to you."

He is a passionate ambassador for the Bambara puppetry tradition - a universal heritage with value to all.

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