The Republic of Sierra Leone, a country in West Africa bordered by Guinea, Liberia, and the Atlantic Ocean, is home to around sixteen ethnic groups, each with its own language and customs, with the Temne and the Mende the largest and most influential. The country gained independence from Great Britain in 1961 but has experienced military rule, civil wars, and fighting since then which has sometimes limited cultural activities. With the relative peace from 2002, the arts have partially reemerged.
In Sierra Leone, there are masks, animated objects and puppets.
Masking and Puppetry
Indigenous traditions of masking are linked to the particular ethnic group. Yoruba egungun masking societies are represented. Sandae helmet masks of the Mende people are danced in female initiation, while the corresponding poro male societies have the “Poro Devil”, a costume mask figure that, in his fetishist guise, “catches” and “consumes” young males as part of their initiation. Other ethnic groups’ secret societies use their own mask images for initiations or funeral rites as needed.
Mask imagery born in a rural context sometimes re-emerges in modern urban reincarnations. Mixtures of Islamic, Christian, and indigenous beliefs are also clear in the representations chosen. In the past, all kinds of masks might have appeared for Christmas or Easter, but this practice has largely vanished. At Christmas, small puppets made by young children are still paraded through the streets, and, on Good Friday, a small figure of Judas is held against a wall, beaten, or hung.
Lantern Festivals and Parades
The Freetown lantern festival is a parade that earlier was celebrated on the 26th day of Ramadan (Eid ul-Fitr), called Day of Light or Lai-Lai-Tu-Gadri (Arabic: Laylat al-Qadr, Night of Power) when the first words of the Koran were revealed, but such a parade can also take place for other important events such as national holidays. Floats, made by ondeley societies with elaborate structures, are lit from the inside by lanterns decorated with various iconographic elements, some of which are genuine, articulated puppets. Dancing marchers and marching musical groups accompany the floats in carnivalesque processions. This tradition is reported by some to have begun in the 1930s when businessman Daddy Maggay modelled the practice on a traditional Gambian Catholic parade. Cars, aeroplanes, ships, animals (crocodiles, lions, goats, elephants and birds) and numerous architectural motifs are represented. Islamic images may show the sacrifice of Abraham, Fatima the Prophet’s daughter, the Prophet’s winged horse, Islamic horsemen defeating Christian crusaders, the tomb of the martyred Iman Hussein or mosques.
Originally simple, hand-carried illuminated lanterns, over time the Freetown images have evolved into large floats with a bamboo structure, covered in crèpe paper and finely decorated, carried by teams of eight men. Or they may be metal-based images that are transported on wheeled motorized vehicles.
Commercial sponsors began supporting groups in the 1940s. From the 1960s, the lanterns became increasingly related to political factions and parties, which led to strife between groups.
To dissipate the potential for violence stemming from various rivalries, the Young Men’s Muslim Association (YMMA) took over the management of the lanterns, organizing the entries according to iconographic type: “ships”, “animals and humans”, “diverse subjects”. The first category, the “ships”, is comprised of handmade floats portraying local architecture: the clock tower of Freetown, a mosque, etc. The second category, that of “animals and humans” may have giant national coats of arms which they display with lions, human and animal combinations – for example St George slaying the dragon – giraffes and horses, or even farm animals. The last category, “diverse subjects”, is a parade of super-human creatures: an array of “devil dancers”, the crowning of the anti-colonialist leader and Temne chief (Bai-Bureh, 1841-1908), Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Sierra Leone in 1961, but also representations of amusement parks.
In these three categories, certain effigies possess articulated parts (limbs, jaw, tail), mounted on perches or metal rods and manipulated with strings. Accompanied by musicians, they move and turn around on top of the floats. Some of them move well expressing the idea with a degree of lively spontaneity, while others display only rudimentary, mechanical movement.
Of all the lantern-float creators, the most distinguished, in the 1960s and 1980s, were Eustace Yaskey-Yaskey and Amara Kamara-Kambara. The former also sculpted masks for the local societies. His figures moved like living masks. Five men, hidden under the platform, would manipulate them by pulling various strings. The artist used elastic and canes to suspend costumes and assemble the figures. His construction method enabled the puppet to perform more complex movements. Of Yoruba origin, Yaskey-Yaskey amalgamated the lantern-float with the dancing mask of Yoruban egungun masking tradition, a reminder that the Muslims who first used the lanterns were descendants of Yoruba slaves repatriated to Sierra Leone.
The combining of both masquerade and lantern-floats is also apparent in the art of Amara Kamara-Kambara, a Temne born in Port Loko. His “bird-sorcerer” was a lantern suit, both a mask and a puppet. Made of bamboo and covered in striped tissue and drawn feathers, it was 2 metres long and 2.5 metres high. A man would get inside in order to manipulate the head and the wings. This “bird-sorcerer” undeniably evokes some of the bird-puppets found in Mali, where the kono bird figure is important, and the bird figures in the Republic of Guinea.
The art of lanterns is a typical example of African culture. Its hybrid nature combines traditional African elements, Islamic religious elements, and secular features. In the economy of the 1970s, the lanterns benefitted from the support of local neighbourhood associations and political parties: they displayed evermore-elaborate styles and great technical expertise. At the end of the 1980s, the Freetown lanterns became gradually less spectacular. In the next decade, due to the economic crisis, Ramadan falling in the monsoon season, competition from other media/art forms, and civil strife, the art was sometimes banned but occasionally resurfaced as in 1997, only to disappear again until after peace agreements. For the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of independence in 2011, an especially elaborate lantern festival was held.
Besides the local traditions of lantern parades and masking, there is also some use of contemporary puppetry by missionaries or development groups in Sierra Leone to transmit messages.