A Portuguese overseas province for five hundred years, the Republic of Angola (Portuguese: República de Angola; Kikongo, Kimbundu and Umbundu: Repubilika ya Ngola) whose citizens are largely Bantu peoples – including the Kimbundu, Ovimbundu and Bakongo – became independent from Portugal in 1975. The country was ruled by a socialist regime during extended civil wars with relative peace restored during the first decade of the 21st century.
This country on the western coast of southern Africa, which is Christian and Animist, has a varied theatrical tradition as attested by numerous sources: archaeology, oral and written literature, images and objects. Traditional theatre and rituals, toys, dolls, festive parades, and contemporary puppetry are some of the forms the art takes.
The Traditional Theatre and Ritual Figures
Traditional theatre, which makes use of masks, figures and puppets, is rooted in popular custom and rituals (see Rites and Rituals). Puppets, invested with the spirit of the afterlife, act as an intermediary between the living and the dead. Objects carved with human and animal-like forms on which are engraved tribal symbols can serve communication with the dead, guide and protect. The festivities of ancestral cults link the two worlds. Cokwe, Ngangela and Kongo ethnic groups’ puppets are prominent in such interactions. Performances are sacred and often are seen only by initiated members who are sworn to secrecy. Different puppets and masks can be used for secular dramas to amuse the spectators.
Divinatory puppets are used by the Cokwe and Ovimbundu peoples. They believe in a Supreme Being (Zambi) who is the creator of all things, and in spirits (hamba or mahamba) that serve as intermediaries between the Supreme Being and humans. The spirits are to provide health, happiness, fertility of the land, and women. If someone suffers a malediction, he or she will consult a diviner, the kimbanda, who is assisted by three or four people who play the drums, sing and dance. During this theatrical consultation, the diviner repeatedly overturns his divination basket (ngombo) containing fifty small figures that are miniature models of large statues. The puppet that falls on top three consecutive times is the hamba spirit that can cure the problem and deliver the message. A sacrifice and prayer to the spirit represented by the figure is usually the next step.
Birth amulets, called jinga, are widely used by Cokwe women. They come in the form of a pair of figures symbolizing both spouses or a mother and her son. These anthropomorphic figures, destined to facilitate maternity, are worn on the hip or around the neck. The ritual to be performed varies with the phases of the moon. Sometimes, at dawn, the owner of the figurines sings and dances in front of her house waving her jinga.
Twins and Their Puppets
Figures for twins, called mapassa by the Bakongo, mahassa by the Cokwe, jingongo by the Ambundu, are other ritual figures. Twins are seen as arising from water, forest or impure spirits, and so these “exceptional” children have to be integrated into the world through a dramatic ritual. After the ceremony, the twins are given two small statuettes to carry on the hip or to place in a miniature hut in a corner of the family plot.
Toys and Dolls
Toys may be just playthings which represent everyday life – a cycling-, one legged- or bearded man, an addict or soldier, a tank or helicopter – but children who play with them in Luena (Mandebue) and Luanda (Sabizanga) sometimes gather an audience.
Many dancing figures or dolls have some relation to fertility. Among the Quiocos people, adolescents dance a pair of toe/foot puppets (see Toe/Foot Puppet) until the male and female figures make love. It is common to see a performance of a young showman, in a back alley.
Meanwhile, dolls are reserved for females and associated with successful childbirth. The boneca (doll) is a custom among the Mumuila: an older married sister, when she becomes a mother, passes on to her younger sister the fertility doll she herself received from an older sister. Girls receive this doll between the ages of nine and fourteen, and care for it until they give birth. The girl plays with and carries the figurine and thus prepares to become a wife and mother. The Mumuila boneca (“doll” or “puppet”) is made of plant fibres and decorated with the headdress and body ornaments of a pubescent girl of this ethnic group.
Among the Kwamatwi people (subgroup of Ambo), a bride carries a doll with a wax head mounted on a wooden fork 50 centimetres long for the first month of marriage. This doll, attached to her belt and pressed against her belly, is considered a “fertility charm” and, according to P. Charles Estermann, is an “artistic event with something of the sacred”.
Festive Parades on Sea and Land
On the island of Luanda (a spit off the shore of the capital), the inhabitants organize the multiday Festival of Kianda (Goddess of the Sea) in November, during which offerings are delivered to the water spirits. Axiluanda, the older name for the Angolan capital, means land of the fishermen and this is an important annual event. Puppet-like headdresses are worn as people honour the queen of the water and other aquatic characters. The procession is conducted on the water, close to the shore and participants pass in small, flat-bottomed fishing boats. On the land, loud drumming and dancing accompanies the festivities that end solemnly with the presence of dignitaries.
Carnival celebrations take place throughout the country, but the event that crowns the yearly regional festivities occurs in February in Luanda. Traditional dignitaries, the diplomatic corps, heads of large corporations and the President of the Republic enter the central forum. The procession includes articulated and non-articulated puppets, masks, and floats.
After independence, contemporary puppets emerged. In 1988, the Colectivo Solidariedade Teatral “Projecto Kapa-kapa” (Solidarity Theatre Collective, Kapa-Kapa Project) was founded and led by Noa Wete, director/playwright with a total of five puppeteers, three men and two women. Their string puppets, measuring about 65 centimetres, are made of foam and performances are for family audiences.
Dancing marionettes appear on television and in the hands of performers who busk on the streets, delighting viewers with agile torso gyrations or leg kicks.
- “Angola Carnival 2012 in Luanda”. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kl5YwHWVeZQ. Accessed 6 August 2013.
- Areia, M.L. Rodrigues de. Les Symboles divinatoires. Analyse socio-culturelle d’une technique de divination des Cokwe de l’Angola (Ngombo ya cisuka) [Symbols of Divination. Socio-Cultural Analysis of a Technique of Divination of the Cokwe of
- Angola (Ngombo Ya Cisuka)]. Coimbra: Instituto de antropologia, Universidade de Coimbra, 1985.
- Estermann, P. Charles. Ethnographie du Sud-Ouest de l’Angola. Tome 1: Les peuples non bantous et le groupe ethnique Ambo [Ethnography of South-western Angola. Volume 1: Non-Bantua and Ambo Ethnic Group]. Paris: Académie des sciences d’outre-mer, 1977.
- Fontinha, Mario. “Desenhos na areia dos Quiocos do Nordeste de Angola” [Drawings in the Sand of the Quiocos of North-east Angola]. Estudos, ensaios e documentos. No. 143. Lisboa: Instituto de investigaçao cientifica tropical, 1983. (In Portuguese)
- Gomez, Samir. “Flash – Carnaval Angola (2/2)”. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_UMADhABN8. Accessed 6 August 2013.
- Rubin, Don, Ousmane Diakhaté, and Hansel Ndumbe Eyoh, eds. “Angola”. The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Africa. London: Routledge, 1997.