Fragmente von Performativität © Anna Pfau, TFM 2020

“The museums regard the objects as their treasure. I always hear that it is a collection and ‘it was collected’. But these things are not just lying around on the street and can be picked up like a handkerchief and taken to the museum. What does ‘collecting’ mean? As far as I know, most objects have been stolen or taken under unclear circumstances, others have been robbed” [translated by A.G.]*

From Mali to Lübeck

They have a long journey behind them, the animal puppet heads from Mali in the collection of the Museum of Theatre Puppets Lübeck. They are testimonies to the festivities which are celebrated every year in autumn at the beginning of the cool dry season in south-west Mali by the Bambara, Bozo, Marka, Malinké and Somono. The festivities, which include drama, music, singing, dancing, acrobatics and puppetry, are known as ‘sogo bò‘, which means ‘the animals come forth’ and refers to the oldest characters of puppetry: the animals of the savannah.

The puppets were made by Malian carvers for a specific village. According to the Bambara, however, the puppets do not belong to the person who carves them, nor to the person who plays them. They are always the property of the community. But why were the puppets sold for the European art market? Were they finished being played? Most of the animal puppet heads from Mali were acquired for the museum collection in 1992 through a collector and art dealer. According to his own statements, he bought the puppets from various local dealers during his field research trips in Mali between 1965 and 1990. But how did these middlemen come into possession of the puppets? Are the puppets ‘out of use’ or were they created explicitly for the European art market? Does this have an impact on the way we deal with them today?

Specimens of ‘African puppet play’

The puppets from Mali are above all also witnesses of global trade. Those ‘ethnographics’ with ‘traces of use’ were particularly sought after. However, these were often artificially added for the art market. Paradoxically, in most cases there was little knowledge about the original use. This is the case with one of the two puppets from Mali known as ‘Marionettenbäume’ (marionette trees). The acquisition records show that one of the puppets was purchased in 1976 through an art dealer as ‘Bambara marionette tree, used’. To date, however, not much is known about the original meaning and function of this puppet. Once set pieces of the cultural event sogo bò, they were shipped to Lübeck as ‘ethnological old collection pieces’ and were added to the collection as specimens of ‘African puppet play’. Separated from their original context of use and meaning. Separated from the actual performative action.

Fragments of a performative action

Presumably the animal puppet heads are set pieces of a zoomorphic full body mask, i.e. large-format animal puppets, also called sogo kun. They are usually fixed to sticks on the wooden frame, which is covered with straw or textiles and represents the body of the animal. However, the rods are usually not (no longer) present. Perhaps they were already offered for sale without rods or they were not of interest to collectors or buyers. The places where the rods were attached are still clearly visible. On some puppets it is also possible to reconstruct how and where the cloth that hid the rods was attached; in some cases there are still remnants of cloth.


Fragmente einer Stabfigur © Anna Pfau, TFM 2020

Antelope in 9 parts: 1 head, 2 ears, 6 horns

In some cases an additional fragmentation of the objects took place by separating parts of the animal heads, such as individual horns or small mounted figures on an antelope head from Sirabougou, Mopti region. For years, the puppet was only displayed in fragments in the form of the head and a pair of horns. The other two pairs of horns as well as the small antelope figures, the ‘Children of the Great Antelope’, were recorded under individual inventory numbers. Only in 2018 could the individual parts be reassigned to the puppet. While the collector’s field research documents still document the puppet as an antelope, a further document from the collector in 1992 describes it as the ‘head of a Sigi’ (a buffalo). In the museum it was listed in the inventory book as ‘bush cow’ in the same year. The meaning of characters like the ‘buffalo’ or the ‘antelope’ in the Bambara was not recorded.

The detachment of the artefacts from their original context was often accompanied by a fragmentation of the objects themselves and thus of the knowledge about them. Often the meanings anchored in the respective societies of origin were lost. Instead, a European view and interpretation, a Eurocentric knowledge, was ‘imposed’ on the objects.


The aforementioned ‘marionette trees’ from Mali are another example of such fragmentation. According to current knowledge, female Janus-headed puppets of this kind represent the ancestral line. These puppets, which consist of a large, immobile stick puppet with several small immobile stick puppets on their heads, are ‘family trees’. This is probably how the term ‘marionette tree’ came into being. The shape is also reminiscent of a tree. The term ‘marionette’ is probably due to a translation error. The French word ‘marionnette’ can stand for ‘puppet/figure’ in general and was usually only translated into German as ‘Marionette’ (marionette). Yet the German term only means a joint puppet manipulated by strings. However, these puppets have nothing to do with a ‘marionette’ in this sense.

Colonialism and Puppetry

‘Marionette tree with 6 marionettes, 3 generations’

For years, the puppets, which were up to 1.60 metres high, were presented together in one showcase. ‘Marionette tree with 6 marionettes, 3 generations’ – that was the name on the object plate of one of the puppets. However, the large puppets were never exhibited in their original form. For the presentation in the museum showcase, the individual small stick puppets were partially separated from the large puppets and placed on the floor of the showcase. One of the six small puppets was inventoried as a single object. The generations were, so to speak, separated from each other, the ancestral line was broken, the puppets thus ‘de-spiritualised’? But why was this approach taken? Because of lack of space? Out of ignorance?

Presenting processes of separation – expanding object biographies

Particularly in the case of objects of ‘non-European provenance’ it is important to examine these processes of separation and attribution. It is the responsibility of the museum to thoroughly research the history of the object before and after its acquisition as well as the circumstances of its acquisition. At the end of the process, the documentation of a biography of the object should be as complete as possible, beginning with the creation of the object and ending in the present. This requires a regular polyphonic survey of the objects. Priority must be given to establishing contact with the respective artists or performers or their descendants as well as networking with scholars from the respective societies of origin. For only they can complete the object stories by opening up further perspectives and reporting on the puppets and their former meanings long before they became museum objects.

“I have the feeling that it is time to take the objects out of the display cases. I expect the objects to be free and equipped with their complete biography […] Is it really so difficult to go to the place of origin and talk to the descendants? […] Why is no effort made to tell the story of the local people? […] Maybe […] because then the objects no longer belong here.” [transl. A.G.]*

*Mnyaka Sururu Mboro, founding and board member of Berlin Postkolonial association, during a discussion at the Museum für Völkerkunde Dresden in March 2018. Mboro fights for a new approach to the colonial-racist heritage in Germany.



In this new chapter we will continue to explore the path of an artefact in our museum. By coming into the collection, it has been separated from its performative context and from its society of origin; it may even stand alone as a testimony to a cultural practice...

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Colonialism and Puppetry. Untangeling the Strings. Dr. Antonia Napp presents the virtual exhibition.


Explore the path of an artefact in our museum.

Colonialism and Puppet Theatre - Untangling the Strings

A virtual exhibition of the Theaterfigurenmuseum Lübeck

Idea and concept: Antonia Napp, Sonja Riehn

inspired by the interdisciplinary exchange of ideas within the framework of the project "Transition/Days. Understanding colonialism, overcoming colonialism?" of the Lübeck Theatre.

Texts: Antonia Napp, Sonja Riehn

Graphic: Anna Pfau

Implementation and social media: Charlotta Paetow

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