Masks and figurines have been used throughout the African continent in as many diverse contexts. Masquerade, festival, ritual and community interaction in traditional cultural contexts have lead to a widespread use of objects in performative contexts. In their animistic religious function some figurines are guardians of ancestral bones while others are powerful partners to the diviner in maintaining law and order. Figurines are often covered with sacrificial libations when fulfilling their ritual function, the original carving becoming encrusted and therefore more powerful over time.
In African puppetry, the iconic object holds specific meaning and supernatural power in performance. The icon has a traditional significance in its ability to convey meaning or messages within the context of local traditions, the community and its religious and spiritual milieu. Indeed, there are many masking and figurine traditions that have evolved to meet the particular needs of various sectors within South African societies and transformed into contemporary modes of expression. The global economy has also shifted much of the contemporary workmanship of traditional artists into more western paradigms, to suit the requirements of trade and tourism.
There is evidence of a tradition of South African puppetry that predates colonial influences. This exists in museums in the form of a variety of articulated figures collected in the 19th and 20th centuries. (These figures were probably found in countries north of South Africa.) There are surreal human figures with animated heads, finely carved with jointed limbs and manipulated with a rod in the small of the back. There are jigging puppets manipulated by a sitting puppeteer with legs outstretched and the puppets strung between the big toes. And there are rainmaking figures with arms attached to a narrow plank, which they climb in performance.
The original religious and spiritual context of the African fetish object is often displaced and appropriated in contemporary performance and cultural representations in South African performance and theatre. This evolution of the iconic ritual object into a new system of cultural signification as a medium of representation has great potential for social transformation and action. Today in South Africa, the term ‘puppetry’ is often loosely incorporated into the broader genre of Visual Performance. The genre offers a multidisciplinary entry point to contemporary performance and its many branches such as performance art, movement, theatre, multimedia, mask, video, puppetry, stage design and visual art, amongst others. This entry point allows the positioning of these genres in relation to each other, as well as a multidisciplinary visuality, as the central concern of the artistic work of puppetry.