Officially called the Republic of Ghana, this country in West Africa is located along the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean, bordered by Côte d’Ivoire in the west, Burkina Faso in the north, and Togo in the east. Ghana is a multiethnic nation practising a variety of religions, including Christianity, Islam, and traditional (indigenous) beliefs; the largest ethnic group is the Ashanti (Asante), a sub-grouping of the Akan people. Ghana was the site of numerous kingdoms and empires, the most powerful being the Kingdom of the Ashanti. Colonized by Great Britain in the early 20th century, Ghana declared its independence in 1957.
In the past and in some areas to the present one can find manipulated objects which relate to puppetry. These “proto-puppets” include dolls, linguist’s staffs, chief’s stools, body puppet/masks, pantin (jumping jacks) figures, and coffins. There are doll figures that are treated in a way analogous to children: they are carried on a woman’s back and cared for attentively.
The best known of such dolls are the Ashanti and Fanti figures, which are called akua’ba (child of Akua). Akua is a mythical woman who is cured of barrenness by receiving such a figure from an okomfo (priest). Made of finely carved wood, with a flat head (disk-shaped for the Ashanti or square for the Fanti) and adorned with coloured glass beads, these figures are traditionally attended until a pregnancy comes to term. E.A. Hanson remembers that as a child in the 1950s his parents discouraged children from making dolls, since to have a figure was associated with infertility. Today one finds similar figures in museum collections and on the tourist market.
Other figural representations were said to be used traditionally by some healers at their homes “to attend at a distance” victims of poisoning or organize a “performance” to exorcise a harmful spirit.
An Akan linguist staff (Oykeame poma) is carved and may have fine top pieces, carved or even of gold, with figures or images that may illustrate a proverb. These staffs were held by the highly regarded orators and was a sign of their verbal power that made them a necessary person for the leader’s entourage. While the staff is not manipulated as a puppet, visually and perhaps symbolically, the object can be compared to the court jester’s marotte.
Some even relate puppetry and stools of the Akan as animated objects. At the foundation of the Asante kingdom Okomfo Anokye, the advisor to the first Ashanti ruler is said to have called from heaven the Golden Stool (Sika’dwa) that was said to be imbued with spiritual power. Bells on this throne were believed to warn the ruler of danger to the realm. Similar stools, sometimes carved with figures, are signs of rank of a chief and are carried in procession.
Large body puppets are a traditional part of some masquerade group activities. Braverman writing in 1974 notes that the sakrobundi masks used in the Bedu masking association are large, flat, ovoid masks with two curved horns and covered with geometric motifs. Raffia costumes envelope the dancers with one man said to represent a male and the other a female figure. Though figures were burnt and banned by missionaries in the first quarter of the 20th century, the tradition was alive in the 1960s when performances with dancing, drumming and satire were part of a festival month and the figures are danced in a way that may seem comparable to Chinese lion figures or Balinese barong.
Another animal-like mask are the gbain – impressive figures with horns, teeth, and sometimes heads that, Janus-like, go in two directions. These figures again are danced by raffia-costumed performers. Maurice Prouteaux found the performance active in 1915 as a protection against sorcery. Braverman in the 1960s related the image to the bush cow and found it used in village purifications during Muhharam (the first month of the Islamic year) for the festival of Asura.
Funerals can be a time for figures to be displayed. Ghanaian traditions include the wooden pantins (similar to jumping jacks) of the Brong (Abron) ethnic group. A large (about 1 metre) flat, natural-looking body is placed at the top of a pole and paraded for funeral ceremonies (or agricultural celebrations). These articulated figures strongly resemble ones found in Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal. Other funeral rites of the past might have the skeleton bones connected by gold thread to allow it to be moved.
A newer tradition of figures may be related to 19th century funeral processions for Ga chiefs. From the mid 20th century, elaborate coffins have been made by woodworkers – these are carefully carved and brightly painted wooden caskets. The work can be seen in funeral processions or, more recently, in major international museums. Among the best-known artists internationally are Kane Kwei (1922-1992), his student Pa Joe (b.1947) and Pa Joe’s apprentices Daniel Mensh (b.1968) and Eric Kpako (b.1979). Animal-coffins (antelope, cow, lion), insects, various fish or lobsters, plants (onion, pepper, papaya), tools (fishing net, mitre, saw, trowel), vehicles (aeroplane, boat, bus, car), books (especially the Bible), or even sports themes (basketball) are found. Little scenes with carved figures can appear on the top. During the funeral, these compositions are moved as the bearers participate in the dancing and singing.
Performances that fit more normative ideas of puppetry are found. European puppets were introduced in the colonial period. Marionette style figures play today in Accra and in other cities, as itinerant puppeteers and musicians bring their puppets to the street or to the market to busk. These dancing puppets are finely crafted and very well articulated. The most sophisticated have eyes, wrists, and ankles that move. In addition, there are rod and glove combination puppets that are dressed in cloth or in raffia fibre (to conceal the rods) with a mobile head and an articulated flapping jaw. Two examples of these belong to the collection of the Musée du Quai Branly (formerly, Museum of Mankind) in Paris. There are also large, human-sized puppets, manipulated a little like the Bunraku theatre of Japan.
During the first year of Ghana’s independence in 1957, a joint educational plan was initiated and broadly publicized by the Chamber of Mines and the Ministry of Health which included puppets. Since that time, puppetry has had an important role in community development and health projects. Today, puppets remain one of the effective tools for teaching literacy and they can also be used for political propaganda and persuasion.
Likewise, E.A. Hanson who headed the Puppetry Division of the Ghana Institute of the Arts and Culture in the 1960s found the evolution of puppetry to be slower than he wished, but noted the work accomplished by the Black Puppet Theatre, a troupe of puppeteers founded in 1962. He wrote, “We have forged a good reputation in the art of puppetry in Ghana. The entire population can see our shows. We have created a foundation. Puppets are present in cities, towns and even in villages.”
Hand puppetry (glove puppets) and to a modest extent marionettes (string puppets) were used for performances in this period. Beattie Casely-Hayford (1922-1989), first director of the Ghana Arts Council, co-founder of the Ghana National Dance Ensemble, and Director of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, was interested in puppetry and supported puppet shows at the Arts Centre and later on Ghana Broadcasting Corporation-TV.
In 1976, UNIMA awarded a grant to two Ghanaian puppeteers, Joseph Abey and Samuel Arrmath, for a period of training at the State Academy of Theatre Arts in Prague. Following this, a training school was established in Accra, the International Puppetry School.
Puppets were also incorporated into new dramatic texts. Playwright Mohammed Ben-Abdallah (b.1944) used puppets in The Trial of Mallam Ilya (1982), which has an actor playing the colonial figure David Livingston carry in a marionette of a Christian missionary who hits the carved head of the African priest with his Bible – reflecting the colonial predicament. Puppetry has also been used in development projects, educational workshops, and mission efforts.
Massimo Wanssi, a Kenyan born artist, has worked primarily in Accra since 1999 and is best known as a sculptor, but his humorous marionettes that dance are dynamic moving sculpture. Chaufra Educators for Behavioural and Attitudinal Change led by director and puppeteer Edem Richmond Kpotosu helps artists develop shows clarifying community issues such as voting and, in 2013, he was training a new group of puppeteers to perform on these issues. National television programmes successfully have presented puppet shows, training writers and puppeteers for these productions.