The Republic of Benin (French: République du Bénin, formerly Dahomey) is a sub-Sahara nation in Africa whose population is primarily agricultural and follows Animism, Christianity, or Islam. A colony of France from 1892, Benin gained its independence in 1960; from 1972-1990 it was a Marxist-Leninist state, and a democratic government since 1991.
The puppet theatre takes on two major forms: masquerade and modern marionettes. Masking is found in the Egun (cult of the dead), Zangbeto (guardians of public safety) and gelede societies of the Yoruba/Nago, Mahi and Fon people. It is in the gelede that puppets emerge as either stationary or jointed figures mounted atop masks or, in some cases, body puppets representing birds or animals (buffalo, hyena, warthog, etc.). The performance is a celebration of Yoruba/Nago religion/culture and is related to similar performance found in Nigeria. Meanwhile, modern puppetry is a newer tradition of string puppetry, called tchitchavi, and is a popular entertainment of street performers which has developed more theatrical offshoots.
The essence of puppetry is part of Benin’s culture, where public entertainment (music, masks with some puppetry, drumming) was used in initiations and had religious and educational purposes. While the costuming used in gelede can be compared to the egungun (ancestral spirit) dancer’s, and some of the gelede figures (such as the body of a buffalo) may use formidable raffia covering with a mask similar to Zangbeto judicial figures, those two cults are more aggressive and so the figures are images of fear. The gelede performance traditionally dealt with some of the same problems (witchcraft, deviance from socially-accepted behaviours or lack of fertility), but adopted a much more playful approach that pleases and soothes.
Though individual performances can take place, the gelede festival during the dry season is a major event of the year and brings solidarity and good luck to all. The event is dedicated to Iya Nla (Great Mother) and is felt to assuage aje, females with spiritual power to harm or help. Men wear the masks and pull the figure’s strings. Performers are called ajogi (“dancer of the wooden image”). Some of the figures represent important ideas from cosmology, but this is also an opportunity for performers to advertise their profession, politics, show their creativity and allegiances. Song and dance performances in the open air during a week of festival remind viewers that, as the Yoruba maxim says, “the world is fragile” and it is only by maintaining good relations (with people and spirits) is balance achieved. The Yoruba say, “the eyes that have seen the Gelede have seen the ultimate spectacle”.
Small figures are often included in the carving of masks and stand on a disk atop the helmet-masks. The carved face of a male or female figure forms the base and above is a miniature scene – a leader meeting followers, animals in combat, or an aeroplane flying. Many of these figures have no moving parts but just represent people (solo or in groups), animals, plants, machines, as ordered by the dancer who commissions the work from the carver. But when danced the figure/scene comes to life as it swoops, bends, and swirls with the movement of the performer. Other figures have moveable parts (for example, arms that extend, a phallus that rises, a bird beak that pecks). The dancer-bearer pulls the strings from below. The large costume of scarves and fabric pieces masks the manipulator-dancer. The words of the text are sung by a chorus to the accompaniment of drummers. Song clarifies the scene, while the movement brings figure/scene to life. The figures represent an infinite variety of characters: musicians, dancers, healers, blacksmiths, a couple engaged in lovemaking, the disabled, farmers, men of power, soldiers, athletes, etc. All these figures are generally presented during the day at a spectacle in which audiences participate by watching or dancing along in a carnival mood.
One notable puppet-mask presents a female by a breastplate which is amplified at the hips, with exaggerated pointy breasts. It is made of carved wood, with the thick neck covered with loincloth material, according to the traditional cosmology. The polychrome painted wooden mask is worn on the head, above the wearer’s painted face. All this gives the illusion of a giant doll with her own self-sufficient will and movement.
There is also a comic character on stilts, dressed in a raffia skirt, with an animal mask called ayoko (hyena) by the Nago (Yoruba) of Kétou; this masked figure plays interludes, giving the other gelede mask dancers the opportunity to catch their breath. The Snake is an image of power and the bird is seen as a messenger between the world and the world of the Great Mother.
Gelede has choreography kept in rhythm by the dancers’ ankle bells, with dancers holding fans or whisks, and their powerful bodies dancing, jumping, gesturing, and miming. The gelede dance appeases the great power of the negative forces held by the age. The dancers of the gelede society are all men and they dance to appease, assuage, contain and honour female power. Women serve as singers and an old woman serves as the leader or head of the festival/cult.
The gelede society is rooted in the Nago peoples of Daagbé, Kétou, of Sakété, of Cové and the surrounding areas. The songs are in the Nago language. In village communities with a tradition of wood carving, the carvers specialize in carving masks and the puppets involved in ceremonies. These articulated statues are presented in competitions that offer honorary awards.
Nowadays, there is a variety of gelede masks and puppets, especially in regions of Daagbé, Cové, Savé, Sakété and Kétou. Without any real growth towards the general public, gelede remains in the circle of insiders as cities and villages adjust to modern culture.
Gelede became a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001.
“Tchitchavi ma plé tapioca non wa” (Tchitchavi “little mister/teacher”, I’ll buy you tapioca): in Cotonou, the economic capital of the country in the 1950s, this song was immediately recognized and a crowd would form around a travelling show of tchitchavi. A man with his marionette walked around the town, singing his melody and dancing his string puppet, in search of viewers; this gradually attracted a larger group that became his audience. Once the itinerant artist had finished his act, the sponsor offered him one or two “tokens” (coins).
The tchitchavi puppet is an articulated figure, carved out of wood and assembled, painted and dressed. The show’s success is based on the creativity of the performer. The same type of show can be found in Togo (tsitsavi). Because of its name (tchitcha, from the English word “teacher”, and vi, “small”), the tchitchavi seems to be inspired by traditions from abroad. These performances are most common in the southern part of the country and traditionally the villages of Dagbe and Oueme were noted for their puppeteers.
Compagnie Dittout (Dittout Company) in Kpahou was founded in 1986 by Grégoire Vissého, a former student of the Togolese puppeteer Danaye Kanlanfei of Lomé. The company uses marionnettes with heads of calabash and costumes of raffia or bright local cloth and performs to drumming. Among Vissého’s projects are work with street children and victims of abuse. He has collaborated with Eric Tremblay of the French company, Compagnie Bululu, on La Danse des animaux (The Dance of the Animals) which explores conservation of African wildlife.
Other notable artists/groups are in the capital, Porto Novo, or the economic centre, Cocotomy. Porto Novo based Jude Zoumenou created Compagnie Thakamou in 2009 and has received support for his work from the Swiss and the European Union. He won the Harubuntu (“That which Has Value”) award in 2012. With a group of up to twelve puppeteers he presents shows on HIV/AIDS, rights of the disabled, the importance of registering births/deaths in a country where such events were formerly not normally noted. He has also created an annual festival of puppetry called Teni-Tedji, which had its fourth iteration in 2013. The event gives visibility to puppetry as an art.
Compagnie Coluche led by Alexamdre Guededgbe, Compagnie Rëne d’Afrique Benin directed by Abdoulaye Farouck – both in Porto Novo – and Compagnie Tchitchavi Sica directed by Jacques Kpade in Cocotomy are other significant groups.
The art of puppetry has roots in forms like gelede which are deep in Benin but await more innovators with contemporary aesthetic who can move beyond the classic tales for children which we see proposed by the national television.