Contemporary puppeteer of Mali. Born in Sikasso, the third administrative region of Mali, Aoua Koné, nicknamed Aouadian for her large size (1.86 metres), is the first woman puppeteer in her country. She later relocated to Bolibana, Bamako Commune III. Following her early schooling in the city of Koutiala, Sikasso, the southern-most region of Mali, Aoua Koné was directed to the Institut National des Arts (INA, National Institute of the Arts) in Bamako. After completing her studies at INA, she transferred to the National Theatre of Mali in 1983. She started sculpting masks and papier-mâché puppets and was assigned in 1984 to Mali’s Troupe Nationale des Marionnettes (National Puppet Troupe).  

Meanwhile, in a parallel endeavour, she started in her neighbourhood of Bolibana an amateur theatre troupe comprised of street children. In doing so, she became increasingly controversial, for in Mali the practice of puppetry was traditionally reserved exclusively for men. It is often called cèko or “men’s affairs”. While there is a group association for young women under the responsibility of an older woman, women are not traditionally involved in activities of creating or manipulating puppets. For women, this remains a do, that is, a mystery, just as much as it is for children, or for outsiders. Thus, it is still considered very dangerous for a woman to practise this art in settings where the traditional practice exists.

Despite the danger and ridicule, Aoua Koné bravely persevered with her interest in puppetry. In 1996, she created her own puppet company, which she named Mongnon, la-Flamme-de-la-Liberté. The leadership of the National Institute of the Arts (INA) agreed to support her by providing a room suitable for sculpture and rehearsals. She introduced another woman, Niankira Diarra, to her work and company, and the troupe grew to two women and three men. Before long, the company secured a contract with Mali’s national television for the video production of short public advocacy plays using puppets. The company then began training instructors in some of the kindergartens in the capital. This was the beginning of the career of Mali’s first woman puppeteer. She refuses to renounce the art of puppetry and states, as if to defy her critics, “The puppet puppetry is my life.”

Aoua Koné’s puppet productions include La mendicité forcée (The Forced Begging, 1999), Le roi malade (The Sick King, 2000), Le bouc et l’hyène (The Billy-Goat and the Hyena, 2001), L’exode (The Exodus, 2003), La tortue et l’hyène (The Tortoise and the Hyena, 2003), La fille de Dieu (The Daughter of God, 2003), Course entre le caméléon et le chien (Race Between the Chameleon and the Dog, 2004), L’excision avec les animaux (Excision with Animals, 2004), Le coureur de jupon (The Womanizer, 2004), Le petit chien et le coq (The Little Dog and the Rooster, 2005), L’amitié entre la tortue et le petit crapaud (The Friendship Between the Tortoise and the Little Toad, 2007), Benjamin, l’enfant aux oreilles dures (Benjamin, the Child with Hard Ears Hard of Hearing?, 2008), Regret de l’homme envers la femme (Regret of Man toward Woman, 2012).

She works not only as a puppeteer but also as a sculptor, and her sculptures she incorporates into her performances. Since 1996, she has created sculptures not only for her own productions but also takes on commissions for shows by other producers. She has participated in the field of sculpture in a number of group exhibitions including the exhibition of artists from the National Museum of Mali (2005) and the international sculpture exhibition in Hanover, Germany (2002). She has also led many workshops and training workshops on sculpture in Mali and abroad, especially in France.

Aoua Koné has been honoured by, among other organizations, the Ministry of Culture of Mali for the modelling and moulding of the mascot for the Biennale Artistique et Culturelle du Mali (1988) and by the Commission d’Organisation de la Coupe d’Afrique des Nations (COCAN, Organizing Committee of the Africa Cup of Nations) for the sculpting of giant puppets for the opening events (2002).

(See Mali.)