The Republic of Guinea (French: République de Guinée; a former French colony, not to be confused with Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea), a country in West Africa, consists of four cultural areas: Maritime Guinea (La Guinée Maritime), Mid-Guinea (La Moyenne-Guinée), Upper-Guinea (La Haute-Guinée) and Forested Guinea (Guinée Forestière). Most of the cultural life related to puppetry is in Upper Guinea (north-east), populated mostly by the Mandinka (also known as Malinke, Mandinko, or Mandingo); in Maritime Guinea (Lower Guinea), the country of the Baga and the Nalu peoples; and in Forested Guinea (extreme south-east), inhabited primarily by the Kpelle (or Guerze), Toma, and Kissi.
The use of theatre/performing figures (sacred or profane) seems stronger among groups that have remained attached to ancestral practices such as the Kpelle of the forest region and the Baga and Nalu of Lower Guinea. Nevertheless, the term “puppet”, in the Western sense, is not found in Guinean languages. This linguistic gap perhaps results in many examples of traditional puppetry remaining unknown, submerged in the broader category of mask.
Among the Kpelle, the main functions of puppetry are social or economic, to protect and “exorcise” (as a prophylactic or cure). In general, a sacred puppet can perform more than one function; a profane puppet is used only in the role assigned at the time of its creation.
The Sacred Puppet
In every family there is a kind of protective figure. The image is dressed or coated with the blood of animals it receives as sacrifice; it is then deposited in a corner of the hut belonging to the household head. Only he is allowed to manipulate it, holding it in his hand while praying. Its movements are intended to match his recited incantations. Considered to be the abode of the ancestral spirits, this figure is solicited when misfortune strikes the family.
The “exorcistic” puppet owned by a healer occurs, albeit rarely. It is used by its owner when a client has symptoms of possession by a malevolent spirit. With the help of three or four assistants, the specialist makes the patient sit on a stool. He takes the puppet from his bag and holds it while his aides hold a container filled with several fetishes over the patient’s head. The healer begins to dance to the rhythm of the music, spinning around the patient and chanting incantatory formulas. When the dance reaches a certain intense point, the puppet is transferred to the hand of the patient who, in turn, begins to dance. The patient may even fall into a trance, a sign that the puppet has conjured the demon. In the case of a sick baby, only the healer dances. The séance is followed by a prescription of behaviours and attitudes to be followed, and sometimes includes control of a protective personal puppet.
Border of the Sacred and Profane
The fertility doll
This figurine is assigned several functions: procreation, health, luck, success… When a child dies at birth or in infancy, a “puppet baby” is made. This figure is carried by the bereaved mother as if it were a real child: she feeds it and takes care of it until the birth of the next child. The figurine is then buried. Popular tradition says that by doing this, the “demon” or “the spirit that devours children’s souls” which has attacked the child leaves when the puppet is buried.
The statuette as the double of a dead child
If there are twins and one dies, a figurine takes the dead child’s place beside the surviving sibling and must receive the same love and care as the living child.
If a woman has lost several children in infancy and continues to give birth, a figurine is sometimes carved for each newborn. This figure will be the child’s companion. Sometimes magical substances are added to protect the owner.
The Profane Puppet
Since the population is eighty-five percent agricultural, their puppets are made from plant materials: wood, twigs, bamboo stalks. However, there are a variety of forms. In the fields, dressed all in white, puppet figures are connected by ropes to objects that sound as the wind blows, serving both as scarecrow and chasing away harmful animals.
Other dolls for young children are manipulated by older brothers or sisters. Several tones of voice are used with these figures and songs may go to their movements. When the child grows, a figure is made for him. It will be his companion for life and will develop at the same pace as the child. Whenever the child plays in a group with his age mates, she/he will wave the figure, just as his older siblings did for him. This puppet was long considered a small fetish by Western authors.
During storytelling, to support the narration, the storyteller brandishes wooden figures, animals, or human beings, with animal representations predominating.
Throughout Guinea, the puppets may show similarities from one cultural region to the next. Among the Baga, Loma, and Kpelle peoples figures are usually carved wood and have a wide nose, thick lips, bulging eyes and semicircular ears which are often placed toward the back of the head. The body, extended by a handle, is carefully polished and blackened by smoke or local dyes. Face and chest are sometimes scarified. The females have an elaborate headdress, thin rings for neck ornaments, and protruding breasts, with hands positioned on the stomach. The male characters sometimes wear a beard. The woman is represented in several ways: Yonbofissa (the ideal of feminine beauty), Zigiren Wunde (young wife), Simogine (sacred woman), ra-Bomp ra-Fetch (baby doll head), Signal (fish woman), etc. Among the representations of animals, A-Mantsho natshol (snake), better known as Bansonyi, occupies an important place. There is also the puppet al-B’rak (Buraq, inspired by the winged horse that miraculously carried the Prophet Muhammad) and Sibondel (a carved wooden rabbit head in front and behind various human and animal figures). Some puppets that belong to healers have a whip in the hand.
Among the Malinke, the game of dolls or puppets is called sobojan and the technique is similar to that in Mali. In this drama, a mother holding a child in each hand is very popular.
All these types of figures have probably experienced social evolutions and the impact of modern thought, without mentioning “demystification” that began in 1955 and peaked in 1968, during which time the “cultural socialist revolution” silenced artists. Puppetry was excluded or forgotten in Guinea, and during this period, many puppet groups ceased to exist. As a result, puppetry has become rare.
Since the 1980s, there have been small attempts to rehabilitate this art.
- Akoun, André, ed. Afrique noire, Amérique, Océanie. Mythes et croyances du monde [Black Africa, America, Oceania. Myths and Beliefs of the World]. Paris: Brépols, 1991.
- Conté, Henriette. Tolom: masques baga . . . [Tolom: Baga Masks]. Conakry: Maéli, 1991.
- Holas, Bohumil. Les Masques kono (Haute-Guinée française). Leur rôle dans la vie religieuse et politique [Kono Masks (French Upper Guinea). Their Role in Religious and Political Life]. Paris: P. Geuthner, 1952.
- Kourouma, Jacques. “La danse dans le cycle de vie des Kpèlè” [Dance in the Life Cycle of the Kpelle]. Actes du Colloque international sur la danse africaine [Proceedings of the International Symposium on African Dance]. Paris: UNESCO, EHESS, 1995.
- La Guinée et son Peuple [Guinea and Her People]. Conakry: Secrétariat d’État à l’Information et au Tourisme, 1965.
- Lamp, Frederick. Art of the Baga: A Drama of Cultural Reinvention. New York: Museum of African Art, and Munich: Prestel Verlag. 1996.
- Lamp, Frederick. La Guinée et ses héritages culturels: Articles sur l’Histoire de l’Art de la Région [Guinea and Her Cultural Heritages: Articles on the History of the Art of the Region]. Conakry: United States Information Service, Conakry, Guinea, 1992.
- Lamp, Frederick, ed. See the Music, Hear the Dance: Rethinking African Art at The Baltimore Museum of Art. Baltimore: The Baltimore Museum of Art, and Munich: Prestel Verlag. 2004.