At Arm's Length: The Art of African Puppetry
At Arm’s Length: The Art of African Puppetry presents nearly 100 animated puppets, marionettes, and puppet sculptures used in traditional and contemporary theatrical performances from two of Africa’s most respected and popular companies, the Handspring Puppet Theater of South Africa and the Sogolon Puppet Company from Mali. Juxtaposed alongside the puppets are performance videos and photographs, demonstrating the creative possibilities of a true synthesis of the arts of two geographically distinct and historically separate regions.
The Sogolon Puppet Company in Mali was founded by master sculptor and puppeteer, Yaya Coulibaly. Puppet theater in Mali is a popular form of entertainment among the Bamana people. Performances employ animal and human puppets, masks, storytelling, music, and dance to explore both current events and ancient beliefs. Often satirical and sometimes performed on boats along the river, these performances give youth an opportunity to comment on current events, engage in social criticism, and perfect their skills as artists and performers. Yaya Coulibaly’s troupe has performed in Paris, Cape Town, London, New York City, and Washington D.C. Coulibaly recently toured the United States with Tall Horse, a production done in collaboration with the Handspring Company. Some of the puppets from Tall Horse are included in the exhibition along with many puppets from the Coulibaly family collection.
The Handspring Puppet Company was founded in Cape Town in 1981 by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler. Soon after its founding, Handspring began challenging the boundaries of puppet theater by creating productions for adult audiences. Since 1992 the company has been collaborating with renowned South African artist William Kentridge, whose video animations form the backdrops for many productions. At Arm’s Length includes puppets from several Handspring productions including Faustus, Ubu and the Truth Commission, The Chimp Project, Woycek, and Tall Horse. Handspring puppets were designed and originally performed by Adrian Kohler as lead puppeteer. In creating Handspring’s unique form of puppet theater, Kohler has drawn on many elements from the diverse traditions of puppet theater around the world. Japanese Bunraku, Indonesian shadow puppets, German and Malian rod puppets, and contemporary theater are all incorporated into Handspring’s performances. At Arm’s Length shows many of the puppets in motion—in videos of productions and in the exhibition where they are mechanically activated. A carousel of chimpanzees and a troupe of dancing petticoats are among the animated puppets shown.
At Arm’s Length: The Art of African Puppetry is sponsored by American Express Company and HIP Health Plan of New York with additional support with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. The exhibition is presented by the World Financial Center Arts & Events, with sponsorship from American Express, Merrill Lynch, Brookfield Properties, and Battery Park City Authority and additional support from the New York Mercantile Exchange and Embassy Suites Hotel New York City.