Officially the Republic of Equatorial Guinea (Spanish: Guinea Ecuatorial; French: Guinée équatoriale; Portuguese: Guiné Equatorial), this small country located in Central Africa, formerly called Rio Muni, became independent from Spain in 1968. It has two parts: an insular and a mainland region. The former is made up of islands, principally Bioko, Annobón, Corisco; the continental section is situated between Cameroon to the north and Gabon to the south. The country’s population is mostly ethnic Fang.
One of the oldest and most impressive uses of the puppet in Equatorial Guinea is connected to ancestor worship. Called “Byeri” (or “Bieri”), the statues used in this ritual, usually motionless, are, on certain occasions, manipulated as puppets.
These ancestor effigies are placed on shrines (a bark box, basket or pack) containing the skull and bones. Figures are carved in wood, sometimes jointed, with hair, coiffed and clothed and may even “speak”. Figure style shows the diversity of traditional hairstyles, and they are carved with a stylization of proportions and a pronounced musculature that gives the impression of contained power. The head is often disproportionately large. The arms are sometimes in a position of offering and the legs are flexed. Bracelets and necklaces of metal are characteristic of the Okak people sub-style. All of these sculptures have a handle, which both attaches to the container and is used to manipulate the figure.
In ritual performances, these figures are taken from their reliquaries and are displayed in motion above a curtain of raffia or cloth strung between two trees. Powered by ritual leaders, the figures execute small jumping movements to the rhythmic music of a band led by the xylophone. During initiation rites, novices are sometimes given hallucinogens (Tabernanthe iboga) to make these “ancestral apparitions” more real, impressive and blinding.
The importance of the cult of the dead is also found among the Fang of Gabon who have the same type of performance (also called “Byeri”) in which the puppet-figure fully engages in an ongoing dialogue with the beyond.
Another kind of seemingly traditional theatre is evinced from a photograph taken before 1962. It shows an outdoor performance in a village. The rod or glove puppets appear above masking made of cloth stretched between two boxes. The performers, hidden behind, are not seen. We do not know what repertory was presented, but the puppeteers used a voice modifier (swazzle) for their vocal technique.
This puppet art of Equatorial Guinea also seems to have influenced nearby Gabon. In Libreville, the dance and puppetry company Ngan Ngom presents a story, created around 1956, showing the impact of an adulterous affair on a family. This story is said to have been created by an artist of Equatorial Guinea: the names of the protagonists are Spanish (Spaniards had colonized Fang areas) and their appearance is curiously European.
- Binet, Jacques. Sociétés de danse chez les Fang du Gabon [Dance Societies Among the Fang of Gabon]. Paris: Orstom, 1972.
- Darkowska-Nidzgorski, Olenka. Théâtre populaire de marionnettes en Afrique sub-saharienne [Popular Puppet Theatre in Sub-Saharan Africa]. Series II. “Mémoires et monographies” [Autobiographies and Monographs]. Vol. 60. Bandudu: Ceeba Publications, 1980.
- La Guinéa Española [Spanish Guinea]. No. 1557, 1962.
- Panyella, Augusto. Esquema de etnología de los Fang Ntumu de la Guinea española [Ethnological Outline of the Fang Ntuma of Spanish Guinea]. Madrid: Consejo superior de investigaciones científicias, 1959.
- Perrois, Louis. La Statuaire fang. Gabon [Fang Statuary. Gabon]. Paris: Orstom, 1972.
- “Reliquary Guardian Figures”. A Personal Journey; Central African Art from the Lawrence Gussman Collection. http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/journey/guardian.html. Accessed 10 June 2013.
- “Tribal African Arts, Fang (Fan, Mpangwe, Pahouin, Pahouins, Pahuins, Pamue, Pangwe) Gabon, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea”. http://www.zyama.com/fang/pics..htm. Accessed 10 June 2013.