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Malian Master Puppeteer, Yaya Coulibali: “Puppetry Is the Sum of the Collective Human Imaginary”

We Africans have to value what we have more and what we are, to value culture, something that is not tangible and cannot be bought and sold, like money.

Yaya Coulibali, pictured here, was one of the main star guests at the 24th edition of the International Theatre Festival of Carthage, held in Tunis, Tunisia, in December 2023.,(Photo: Ricard González)

The veteran Malian master puppeteer Yaya Coulibali, born in 1959 in the village of Koula, around 100 kilometres north-east of Bamako, has more than half a century of experience in puppetry and has toured the world to perform his art. A descendant of the distinguished family that ruled the animist Bambara kingdom of Segou (1721-1861), his father entrusted him with the task of learning and passing on the role of puppeteer, which involves a wide range of skills that go beyond theatre in Malian culture. And he has devoted his entire life to it.

It is a political as well as an artistic commitment, as puppetry is targeted by the jihadist groups that control part of the country, although not the capital, Bamako, where Yaya Coulibali lives. He also feels it is important to impress on the younger generations the value of their own culture, which is being lost with the large-scale emigration to the West.

During the 24th edition of the International Theatre Festival of Carthage, held in Tunis, Tunisia in December 2023, Coulibali, one of the main star guests, spoke to Equal Times about his art in the current African context.

How would you define the art of puppetry?

My father had a way of defining it, that I like very much, as the sum of the collective human imaginary. One has to bear in mind that it encompasses several artistic disciplines: storytelling, song, dance. Puppetry is the first living art of humanity. The others came later. Moreover, it is universal, as we find the first manifestations of it in regions all over the world during a period ranging from 4,000 to 10,000 years ago. In Mali, it is an age-old art, the root of our culture. Centuries ago, the Arab traveller Ibn Battuta already commented on the role of puppets in his chronicles.

Why are they so important in Mali?

Traditionally, puppets have played many social roles, so the puppeteer is a playwright, a therapist, a magician, a theologian. It was believed, for example, that puppetry was a form of resurrection of the ancestors, and some could even experience a trance and communicate with them. The puppeteer also helped to treat certain health problems. It was the puppeteer who made a splint when someone broke a bone. Today, there are scientific studies in France that demonstrate their ability to heal children with psychosomatic illnesses.

And they also play the social role of bringing society together, don’t they?

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Yes, indeed, they help to strengthen the social fabric and social cohesion. Puppets play a fundamental role in the transmission of knowledge, ancestral myths and the history of the community. In short, culture. It is a very effective way of transmitting messages and knowledge to future generations. In the past, there used to be many festivals in the villages that brought children closer to culture. It played a valuable socialising role. Another example of its value as a channel for social cohesion is that when the rains came the sacred puppets would go out on the streets to dance, marking the start of the sowing festival. Then, at harvest time, it was time to thank the heavens for having fed us, and everyone would go out to dance in a spirit of fraternity.

This aspect must be important at a time when Mali is suffering from jihadist violence...

Jihadism is a new form of banditry. It has nothing to do with our people. In the Sahel, we have always had a good relationship with each other. The problem is that, after [Muammar] Gaddafi’s death, a number of extremist groups flourished, there was mayhem, and the area became an Eldorado for traffickers. We need to be able to promote unity in diversity. We puppeteers have always experienced difficulties with religions, and with power in general, because we speak the truth. And now we are the target of the jihadists, who consider the representation of human beings as heresy.

And on a personal level, what do puppets represent for you?

They are my life. I was born on a day dedicated to a spiritual celebration, and so, according to my people – the Bambara – I was destined to be the repository of ancestral knowledge, even though I was not the first-born child. Puppeteer status is passed down from father to son and in my family the tradition goes back to the 11th century. For all these reasons, my family did not want me to pursue my studies [at secondary school] and, above all, not to do so in the capital. They were afraid that I would give up this responsibility. But that wasn’t going to happen because puppetry has always been a passion for me. I have fought all my life for the recognition of puppetry in the French-speaking world because, not many decades ago, it was considered a lesser art. This discipline is central to the cultural heritage of the entire African continent.

Are you optimistic about Africa’s future?

Yes, because Africa is very rich. Let’s not forget that humanity was born here, and then spread to the rest of the world. I believe that sooner or later humanity will return to Africa. We are the birthplace of world culture. But here there is a danger that the transmission of knowledge will be lost because many young people emigrate. That is why one of my struggles is to give encouragement to young people, to serve as a point of reference for them. We Africans have to value what we have more and what we are, to value culture, something that is not tangible and cannot be bought and sold, like money. In the West, they have another problem with young people, that of screens, which are harmful, because they make it impossible for young people to concentrate.

How would you describe your style of puppet making?

I learnt in the traditional style, but I’ve enhanced it thanks to my contact with the outside world. I trained in France, and then I travelled all over the world. We had stick puppets, and the ones you put on your shoulders, but I learned to make marionettes, string puppets, in the West, so now my work is the fruit of a fusion. Each country has its own tradition. The ones I really like are from Laos and Indonesia.

Your puppets are all brightly coloured. What is the symbolism behind the colours?

In Mali, we are a country of colours, and they have their importance when it comes to puppets because, in the past, we used to perform with little light, by the light of the moon, and they had to be visible from far away. One important colour is yellow, because it symbolises the ancestors, life. Yellow is the colour of dawn, of the sun, and it is also the colour of the first excrement of a newborn baby. White refers to the goddess of purification, but also to death, because that is the colour of crocodile excrement. Blue and green, meanwhile, are related to mother nature.

Some puppets represent human beings, others represent animals. What significance do they have?

[Depending on the group,] they have different names. Manis is the name we give to those of human beings, and sogo is the name we give to those of animals. For us, the relationship with animals is important. We have lived with them since the dawn of time, and we have learned from them. They have served as a source of inspiration for us. Each animal usually represents a human character. Two key animals in our theatre are the hyena and the gazelle.

What role do women play in puppetry in Mali?

Women in our culture are very important, they are the memory of the nation. We believe that we are all descended from a woman in ancient times, whom we call Pemba. That is why the figure of the woman represents God, the creation. In our language, when people die, we say “they have returned to their mother”. And that’s why we bury corpses in the foetal position. During the puppet festivals, she performs various tasks, such as welcoming the performers and taking care of the musicians’ instruments.

What dream would you still like to fulfil?

I would like to finish building the Maison de la Marionnette [House of Puppetry] in Bamako. It will serve several purposes: it will be a theatre, a museum, and it will have a residence to welcome artists from other places who come to receive training. As part of the project, we are carrying out an inventory of the 25,000 puppets in my care. Many are family heirlooms. The oldest ones date back to the sixth century. I myself have around 3,000 of my own. You have to treat puppets like people, because they might always have a new life, years later, and end up in a museum.

Ricard González is a political scientist and journalist specialising in the Arab world. After living in Egypt for four years he has been based in Tunisia since 2015. He is the author of the book The Rise and Fall of the Muslim Brotherhood.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin

Equal Times is a trilingual news and opinion website focusing on labour, human rights, culture, development, the environment, politics and the economy from a social justice perspective.