Past and recent works of South African artists who fall within the large category of visual performance attest to a growing body of multidisciplinary, visually-oriented material that touches on traditional and experimental puppet modes. Often puppetry is adapted into once-off performances or used to enhance visual aspects of productions. The potential of puppetry in contemporary visual performance practice relates to its multifaceted, interdisciplinary approach to meaning and representation in both its semiotic and phenomenological potential and significance. Yet, despite the success and proliferation of visual performance, there remains only a tiny network of puppetry artists (either formally or informally trained) working professionally in contemporary adult puppetry in South Africa.
An influential South African puppeteer, Jill Joubert, was first introduced to puppetry through her BA Art lecturer, Stephen de Villagers, during her art teachers’ training course at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, UCT, in 1975. Jill became a founder member of Handspring Puppet Company with Adrian Kohler, Basil Jones and John Weinberg from 1981 to 1983. She made two adult puppet stories in 1993 and 1994 that she performed from time to time for intimate audiences. Jill became the principal of the Frank Joubert Art Centre in 1997 where she developed refined techniques of teacher training in puppetry. Joubert’s theoretical research into African mask and figurine traditions heavily informed her practice of puppetry. Focusing on African archetypes, mythology and a unique found-object aesthetic, Joubert has created evocative productions, including Creation Stories form the Richtersveld (2007).
A leader in puppetry, who became associate director of the Handspring Puppet Company in 2011, is Janni Younge. Younge began her career as a sculptor studying for an honours degree in Fine Art and majoring in sculpture. She then went on to complete a DMA from the French National School of Puppetry Arts (ESNAM), where she studied from 1999 to 2002, and then completed an MA (Masters) in Theatre (at the University of Cape Town, 2007). In 2003, she became the chairperson of UNIMA SA (the South African association of puppetry and visual performance). Younge’s first theatre company, Sogo Visual Theatre, produced several original works, which have been performed widely in South Africa and abroad. All of her major works combine multiple puppetry styles including shadow theatre, marionettes and live video with live performance. Younge was named the 2010 Standard Bank Young Artist for theatre as the first female puppeteer to receive this great distinction.
Capetonian puppetry artist and former chairperson of UNIMA SA, Jaqueline Dommisse, trained in drama in Johannesburg in the 1980s. Together with Catherine Dodders, Dommisse created a puppetry-based company in the ‘90s called the Puppet People, which created the seminal puppetry production Sadako for the Grahamstown national arts festival fringe. In 2011 it was recreated and performed on the Main festival of both the Grahamstown National Arts Festival and the Out the Box festival where it won the Handspring Puppet Company Award for best production.
Puppeteer, visual performance artist and academic, Aja Marneweck, established The Paper Body Collective in 2004 in Cape Town. After obtaining an honours degree in video dance and theatre directing in Johannesburg in the ‘90s, Marneweck began her puppetry career with Gary Friedman in Cape Town in 2001, collaborating on the site- specific puppetry production, Looking For a Monster. After completing a Masters degree in Puppetry at the University of Cape Town in 2004, she went on to create several multimedia puppetry productions which toured to over seven countries between 2005 and 2011. Marneweck’s puppetry production on gender and migrancy, In Medea Res, performed on the prestigious main programme at the world famous Festival Mondial des Théâtres de Marionnettes in Charleville-Meziere, France. Marneweck also collaborated on various interdisciplinary projects with performance and dance artists, including Jane Taylor (writer/collaborator on the Handspring Puppet Company production of Ubu and the Truth Commission directed by William Kentridge) and Jay Pather (Chairman of the National Arts Festival Grahamstown, CEO of GIPCA Institute of Performing and Creative Arts), amongst others. Marneweck also completed the inaugural PhD in Practice as Research in Puppetry and Visual Performance, in the Drama and African Gender studies Departments at the University of Cape Town in 2011.
South Africa’s best-known ventriloquist, Conrad Coch has performed his shows across the country and abroad. His hilarious Puppet Asylum ran in Cape Town and Johannesburg in 2011 to packed and appreciative audiences. Using an assortment of human, animal and beastly puppets, Conrad makes social and lightly political commentary.