Exhibitions (27.3.2008-24.8.2008)

Messengers of Magic: African puppets and masks

exhibition in Náprstek Museum of Asian, African and American Cultures

Náprstek Museum of Asian, African and American Cultures, Betlémské nám. 1, Praha 1

The exhibition ‚Messengers of Magic. African puppets and masks‘ presents one aspect of the immensely rich traditional culture of Sub-Saharan Africa, unveiling the secret behind African magic. African Masks and Puppets Masks present the most characteristic feature of traditional African art. All the important events in the lives of many Africans are accompanied by performances in masks. Firstly, masks are an inseparable part of initiation festivities hrough which young Africans become adults. They are largely used by men and in many cases women are not allowed to see them in masks at all. Exceptionally, however, women perform in masks as well (for example in the Bundu secret societies of Liberia and Sierra Leone). The use and the making of masks isn‘t completely widespread in Africa. Although only so-called black Africa is involved,, even there we find ethnic groups that do not make masks. They are most abundantly used in the coastal belt from Senegal in the North to Angola in the South. In East Africa (Tanzania, Mozambique, Kenya), masks are used especially by members of the Sukumu, Makonde and Wayao tribes. In general though, the production and use of masks in this area is substantially less frequent than in West Africa. Wood is the most popular material for the making of masks. It is always carefully selected from a particular tree in accordance with the local tradition. The actual obtaining of wood is accompanied by many rituals, which vary among individual tribes. The basic material of the mask is often complemented with other natural materials: leather, feathers, animal teeth, shells, beads, or raffi a fi bre. Not just the fi nished mask, but the whole making of it, is part of a religious ritual with which a number of traditional rules are associated and must be followed by the wood-cutter. The whole work of art is usually done in a secluded place, though this is not an absolute rule. For instance, the Chokwe wood-cutters from Angola make some of their works surrounded and encouraged by their friends. The dark colour of the mask is achieved by burning or embrocating with oils. Polychromy is an important feature of masks, in some cases it is even the major carrier of their iconographic significance. Puppets Just like masks, puppets have a special power. Via masks, ancient heroes and animals come to life. We can fi nd almost all kinds of puppets in Africa, except shadow puppets. In the city environment, actors as well as spectators prefer marionettes, while in villages we find stick puppets, which are led from below, pair puppets, and also puppets controlled by big toes. The purpose of puppets is not only to entertain the spectators, but, in the fi rst place, to instruct or to point out imperfections in contemporary society. A puppet performance usually takes place in a public place. Certain plays are deemed suitable for performance at particular times of the day.. Different performances are played in the afternoon and after sunset. Puppetry doesn’t suit everyone. For example, among the Bambara in Mali, there is a society of young men called Ton. Only members of this society can give puppet performances. In African society, a puppet is not just a toy, but is equal to an adult actor. The most frequent material used for making puppets is wood, but you can also fi nd textile puppets, or puppets made of other plant materials.

From exhibition 1
From exhibition 2
From exhibition 3
From exhibition 4


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