African puppets

Bamana marionette figures
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Bamana Saga jigi kun / Head of the Ram
(This wonderful puppet is no longer in my collection)

"Twice a year, the Bozo, Somono, Marka and Bambara populations of Central West Mali perpetuate a long tradition of sogo (animal) mask dances,
sometimes accompanied by jiri maanin (little wooden people). The purpose of these festivals, called Sogo bo (animal outings) or Tyeko (the thing of men)
or Do bo (the manifestation of the mystery), is to enact original myths, legends, the cosmos and ancestors, as well as all the new things in the world. They
also depict the psychology of the human character. The youth in the villages are responsible for performing the masquerades based on the information
they learn from the elders.

The oldest Sogo bo characters are bush animals and they still enjoy a special place in the theater. During any performance it is not uncommon to see
masquerades representing lions, bush buffalos, hippos, crocodiles, elephants, wild cats, antelopes, and powerful bush spirits. In these communities the
bush is defined as the domain of men and it is the locus of power. The interpretation of the theater's bush animal characters are informed by beliefs and
values associated with hunting and with hunters as men of action and society's heros. It is the world of the hunter and the association of hunting with
heroic behavior that young men in the youth association, the owners of the masquerades, choose to identify with, and to celebrate through the
performance of these bush animal masquerades.

The repertoire that a troupe plays in any year underscores a fundamental principle of youth theater which gives a positive value to innovation and
change. The dramatic content of the youth theater is concerned with exploring the interplay between unity and rivalry, between the elders and youth,
between the collective and the individual, and between tradition and change. Each season a troupe will choose to play many of the same characters
popularized by their fathers and grandfathers before them. But each new generation of young men is also charged to create new characters to rival those
of their elders. While the community invests a high value in unity through the maintenance of tradition, it also recognizes that creative rivalry energizes
these performances, in the same way that people understand the necessity for innovation and change in order to move the society forward.

Troupes creatively exploit the full spectrum of arts—puppet masquerades, dances, drumming, and songs—to construct the dramatic characters in the
fictional world of Sogo bo. These performances are important sites for the exploration of the moral universe. Like folktales and other theatrical forms,
these masquerade performances throw cultural values and social relationships into high relief and open them up for public scrutiny. Even though they are
defined as entertainment, young men and women proceed with a seriousness of purpose, often mediated by wit and humor, to examine the nature of their
world and their lived experiences. For generations, this theater has constituted one important public avenue through which young men and women have
gained access to knowledge, instruction, and experience by commenting upon the critical beliefs and values within their communities."

Mary Jo Arnoldi - Playing With Time - Art and Performance in Central Mali


References: Playing With Time - Art and Performance in Central Mali
Another great reference book on African puppets and marionette figures