TRADITIONAL THEATRE PUPPETS OF MALI
From the Andrej Jerovšek Collection and the Collection of the Museum of African Art
The exhibition will be open until 23 August 2021.
The exhibition Traditional Theatre Puppets оf Mali – From the Andrej Jerovšek Collection and the Collection of the Museum of African Art presents the puppets whose style of manufacture and animation is characteristic of the theatrical form traditionally performed in the southern parts of the Republic of Mali, along the Niger Valley. The leading role at the exhibition is shared by the Antelope with a Drummer and Dancers, the Elephant, an array of yellow, red and blue little people, and Merenkun, a large double-faced sculpture representing a woman. Featuring a variety of dramatic characters and sculptural qualities, the exhibition also reveals the structural elements of the puppets that enable their stage movement. It displays articulated rod puppets, some of which are furnished with strings for manipulation, as well as wood-carved puppets with no moveable parts. We shall right away share two more secrets of the acting trade in this part of Africa with all connoisseurs and lovers of puppetry and theatre and with all those this exhibition invites to become ones: the traditional puppet characters play scenes of silent theatre and the puppeteers remain hidden in the costume or in the kalaka, an element functioning as a mobile stage.
The long and rich tradition of puppet theatre inherited by the Republic of Mali originated in the region of Segou, where it still holds special importance in cultural life, providing powerful inspiration for the contemporary performing arts both on the national and on the international scene. The travel accounts written down in late nineteenth-century and later the ethnological work which recorded local oral traditions, suggest that puppetry in those regions originated in Bozo culture in ancient times and was embraced and imaginatively developed by the cultures of the neighbouring Bamana, Maninka, Marka and Somono in the valley of the Niger and its tributaries. In the rural areas they inhabit, the Somono and Bozo are known as fishermen and boatmen, and the Bamana, Maninka and Marka as farmers. Common to all these communities are the traditional social institution of the youth association and the puppet theatre organised and performed by its members.
The traditional puppet theatre put on by youth associations in their villages has the form of a celebration or a festival consisting of many outdoor performances and lively interactions between performers and audiences. This type of theatre is famed for the puppets, giant and small, which represent animals, human beings, mythic beings and spirits. Owing to the skill of the performers, traditionally initiated into the secrets of puppetry, the movements of the puppets range from simple dance steps to complicated and dynamic movements. Apart from puppets, a traditional production includes lead vocalists and choruses, masked and costumed performers, group dances and percussion ensembles, with participation in these diverse performances being limited by gender roles. Traditionally held once or twice a year, they constitute an important social and cultural event for the community. With its powerfully expressive and captivating aesthetic, the traditional puppet theatre primarily serves an educational purpose. According to Mamadu Samake, an expert of the National Museum in Bamako, the instructions of this theatre concern “married life, social life, economic life, the environment, history and myths, and are transmitted through comic or satirical scenes where realistic or symbolic characters are represented”.
The exhibition Traditional Theatre Puppets of Mali features puppets of diverse types and techniques of manufacture from the Museum of African Art’s founding Pečar Collection and the private collection of Andrej Jerovšek, Slovenia, collected in Mali between the late 1960s and mid-1980s. The exhibition also shows textiles decorated with diverse printed or woven designs which visually evoke the diversity of stage sets in traditional puppet theatre. The purpose of the exhibition is to present the long tradition of puppetry in Mali, including the symbolism of traditional puppet characters, and to illuminate the importance in society of the system of youth associations and of their puppet theatre which reflects transition from youth to adulthood, links and integrates experiences, frames and amalgamates heritage and new creation. In order to afford the visitors a visual presentation of movement and at least a glimpse of a puppet performance, the exhibition features replicas inspired by Malian traditional puppets created by the sculptor Milica Josimov, and digital animations created by the graphic designer Ivana Bunuševac.
What lends a special significance to this exhibition is the collaboration established between the National Museum of Mali in Bamako, and the Museum of African Art in Belgrade during the preparatory work focused on the study and interpretation of the selected objects. Owing to the support of Mr Douda Keita, Director of the National Museum in Bamako, and Mr Mamadou Samake, the National Museum’s expert on the art of puppetry, we are able to offer the visitors interpretations of puppets which include the original names and meanings of their delicate visual and functional aspects attesting to the expressiveness of Mali’s traditional art of puppetry.