Officially the Republic of Liberia, this country in West [Africa] is bordered by [Sierra Leone] to its west, [Guinea] to its north, and [Côte d’Ivoire] to its east. Liberia, colonized by liberated slaves from the [United States of America] and becoming fully established as a new country in 1847, is an Anglophone nation. The country is still recovering from the effects of the civil wars from the 1980s through to 2005.
Here one finds mostly mask-puppets, as is frequently the case in Africa. Puppetry is found in divination, adjudications, and modern performance, but it is seldom separated out from other forms of masquerade.
It is in Liberia that one can find a magical object called ge (or gye), used to protect people against sorcerers (gle in Côte d’Ivoire). Comparable to a divinatory puppet, the ge looks like a human head with a crown of feathers. It is composed of many elements including wood, clay, lightning stone, plants, poison, wine, cowry shells, wild boar tusks, horn-amulets, and feathers. The ge is placed directly on the head of a tribal healer or on a small stretcher. As the healer makes contact with the ge, he goes into a trance and then answers the questions by assistants about past, present and future events. Among the Kra, one asks the ge for the return of health, for new births, abundant harvests, but also punishment for those who cast spells. The visual aspect of their ge is often frightening: it can have two pairs of eyes and a significant number of horns-amulets and boar tusks. Sometimes, several ge coordinate their actions. The diviners that animate them are also the guardians of the images.
The mask-puppet is a sculpted object, sometimes articulated, worn on the head or, more often, on the face, or incorporating a very imposing [costume] which may envelop the whole body. It becomes a puppet when held by the “manipulator-dancer” and comes to life through the choreographed movements of this artist.
A typical example is the articulated mask of the Ngere people. It is carved in wood and decorated with cloth, with animal teeth, human hair and leather amulets. However, every ethnic group has sculpted masks included in its traditional performances. They are found particularly among the Krahn, Gola, Dan, Yai Bundu, Bassa and the Dei peoples. Besides providing entertainment, these articulated masked performances perform a judicial role.
The Krahn who live in the east of the country also use mask-puppets to settle disputes. These puppets with their judicial function, called Siah-you-wor-gle, are very old and are passed on from generation to generation through zoes, the teachers or inheritors of the tradition, who are said to have supernatural powers, the capacity to heal and to grant forgiveness in order to bring back to the community someone who has transgressed.
Among the important mask-puppets of Liberia are those belonging to the Gola in the south-west. These include gba-too, in which the performer seems to shrink to 1 metre and then grows to nearly 3 metres, and the gle-gban (Gio devil), which are stilt walking images up to 4 metres in height; these figures are not sculpted but made of cotton materials. They are considered to be very powerful and appear publicly only on very rare occasions (an exceptional harvest, the funerary commemorations of an elder or a war leader) or for the annual rituals of the ancestors. During these holy days, the outings of mask-puppets are accompanied by ritual sacrifices of all sorts of livestock to appease the ancestral spirits and to ask them for protection and for intercession with the higher powers.
However, the practice of these ceremonies was jeopardized by the civil war which devastated the country and led to the deaths of an estimated 250,000.
Mask-puppets for entertainment are mostly used on the occasion of the funeral of an important person (an elder, a warrior or a chief) or at the time of abundant harvests.
NGOs and missionary groups in recent years have used puppetry to communicate development or share religious messages.
- Dagan, Esther A. Emotions in motion . . . La magie de l’imaginaire: marionnettes et masques théâtraux d’Afrique noire [Emotions in Motion . . . The Magic of the Imaginary: Puppets and Theatrical Masks of Black Africa]. Montréal: Galerie Amrad, 1990.
- Harley, G.W. “Masks as Agents of Social Control in Northeast Liberia”. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology. Vol. 32, No. 2, 1950, pp. 34-35.
- Rubin, Don, ed. The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre. Vol. 3: Africa. London, 1994; New York: Routledge, 1997.
- Schwab, G. Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland. Cambridge (MA): Peabody Museum, 1947.