This article is a longer version of the essay on page 12 of Puppetry International #41.
It is our peer reviewed offering for this issue.

My Visit with the African Giants: Les Grandes Personnes de Boromo

by Heather Jeanne Denyer

Denyer-LGP in courtyard.jpg

I was the only passenger to descend the bus in the small town of Boromo, Burkina Faso in Sub-Saharan Africa. It was 100ºF in November and the Harmattan season’s dust filled the air of the bustling marketplace. I barely noticed though because I was on a mission: to see the giants. There’s something truly magical that happens when the five-meter-tall puppets, les grandes personnes, (the big people), parade through town. Everyday life seems to stand still from the moment that the colossal heads appear over the mango treetops and thatched roofs, heralded by percussive music. Trucks, bush taxis, and scooters pull over to the side of the road. Children run out from their schools and adults from homes and the market, their eyes wide with wonder – some full of fear, but most full of joyful amazement. For West African audiences of all ages, the mythical figures of giants become real. In this article, I will consider how the large puppets, while deviating from sacred puppetry traditions, still carry a spiritual resonance to their local audiences.

Les Grandes Personnes (LGP) of Boromo has become known throughout West Africa for their giant puppets. The parent organization is based in Aubervilliers, France, and the Boromo association is the most successful of the over twenty affiliated groups, including those developed in Brazil, Chile, Madagascar, and South Africa. In fact, the Burkinabe group can be considered a core group because the LGP aesthetic began to take seed when French puppetry artist Christophe Evette first visited Burkina Faso in 1987. Then he met Bomavé Konaté, a traditional wood sculptor who helped Evette define his aesthetic for the large-scale puppet performers. Evette developed the giants with artists in France, and they have been active in Europe for thirty years.

When Evette returned with six French colleagues to Africa in 2000, they introduced papier-mâché and manipulation techniques to Burkinabe artists, adapting the puppetry construction to local resources like baskets, cement bags, and fabric scraps. The seven Europeans left; however, their African counterparts continued to parade the puppets in local towns. So the Frenchman returned to Boromo in 2003 and, together, the European and African artists created the many puppets needed for the inaugural show, “Le fleuve,” (“The River,”) which involved over 200 performers parading through local towns with giant fish and sea creatures, waves, and an enormous batik whale. (1) From this project, around twenty African collaborators formed the association in Boromo, and the French and Burkinabe teams continue to develop projects together, as well as independently.

The Boromo association now comprises about thirty artists, including sculptors, blacksmiths, painters, tailors, puppeteers, and musicians. The Zongo family is at the heart of the association. The group’s business manager, Dri Zongo organizes all public events, from tours and festivals to parades and concerts. His brother Ousseni has been a puppeteer since the start, and his nephew Joel joined the group as an apprentice in 2010, inspired by the joy the puppets brought to the local community. The Zongo family also manages the association’s center, which includes a stage for performances, a hangar for the puppets, and lodging and training areas for visiting artists. The center is also the construction site for the puppets. There, the association has trained local children and foreign visitors. In addition, a canteen run by the Zongos brings in extra profit to help fund the group’s projects.

A sculptor, himself, Evette had already worked as a puppetry artist with the group Agitez le Bestiaire in Rennes, France. However, he developed his own group with a new focus after he met the Bwa sculptor. Konaté is not only a skilled artist, but also a local historian. When I visited Konaté in his outdoor carving workshop in Boromo in November 2016, he taught me the basics of wood sculpting and explained the cultural significance of the surrounding sculptures, including life-size crocodiles, colorful birds, and a variety of masks and statues, all carved from the wood of the fromager (white silk cotton tree). (2) According to Evette, Konaté “told the nearly forgotten games and customs of his childhood through wood, and presented the more traditional masks that he and his brother had sculpted.” (3) As the founder of the National Park of Modern and Traditional Arts in Boromo, Konaté has cultivated a museum collection of ceremonial masks and traditional sculptures. Recognizing his efforts at conserving local heritage, many have donated family masks to his collection. There’s a history for every one of them that the master is eager to share with visitors.

Konaté grew up in the artisanal village of Oury located twenty-eight kilometers from Boromo, where the habitants continue to work in wood sculpture, metallurgy, and pottery (a traditionally female craft). He began learning his trade at ten years of age. Now he has trained a number of younger relatives, including his brother, Yakoba, who works with Evette in France. Even though the LGP sculptors use papier-mâché instead of wood, their aesthetic borrows strongly from Konaté’s influence, and he often collaborates with the puppetry artists. Along those lines, Evette explained to me that, for him, puppetry is a pretext for bringing together artists using popular techniques. (4) Evette worked closely with Konaté in developing the 2014 show, “Bona Kélé,” about the people of Bona who revolted against the French recruitment of African boys and men to fight for them in World War I. Instead of giant puppets, the show used fifty-three small wooden and metal sculptures that were passed around to seated audience members. “Bona Kélé” demonstrates the ongoing collaborations between Evette and Konaté, as well as the continued influences of local histories and traditions on their art.

Building on Konaté’s influence again, LGP puppetry making is collective: one person begins the sculpture process; another adds the details; a third paints the sculpture. The puppets are similar in construction and are operated in a similar fashion to Bread and Puppet Theater, although Evette was not aware of Peter Schumann’s group when he designed his giants. For practical reasons, the puppet heads and hands are crafted in papier-mâché rather than in wood like traditional masks and fetishes. Locally found objects provide structure, such as empty plastic water bottles for fingers and gourds for eyes. Molds for the heads and hands are formed out of mud made from the clay of termite mounds. Once dry, they are lined with plastic and filled with paper scraps from cement bags and a paste made of mashed corn and millet. Fabric strips are added to reinforce the paper. When the body parts have firmed, they are removed from the molds and painted.

At the same time, blacksmiths prepare the body. The center of the body is a metal frame that the puppeteer wears like a backpack, secured by straps across the chest and stomach. A metal rod reaches up from the top of the frame, through the neck of the puppet to the head, where it is attached. The hips and backsides of the puppets are filled out with spirals of thin wire, while other areas, such as chests and bellies, are formed with papier-mâché. After the puppet is assembled, tailors sew giant skirts, shirts, and pants to dress them. The entire process from start to finish includes the skills of up to twenty artists and might take two weeks for a single puppet, although puppets may be reused. Existing puppets include a Rastafarian named Barnaby, a baby, and a fashion-conscious woman named Poko.

For the puppeteers, manipulating the giants is no easy task. Others are always on hand to help erect the puppets and to “put them to bed,” as Joel Zongo explained to me. (5) During a parade, two others spot an active puppeteer in case they are overwhelmed by the wind, like they might be if they were flying a large kite. The puppets weigh between twenty and thirty kilograms, so performers need to be replaced during longer performances. For the parades, the general feeling is a celebration, as the puppets dance with one another – and even with willing spectators. Straps attach over the puppeteer’s shoulders so when they move, the puppet’s body corresponds: the puppet’s shoulders shrug with the puppeteer’s own shoulders. The frame also provides a base for loose plastic hoses that stretch out for the arms and legs. The legs of the male puppets are attached to the puppeteers’ shoes, and the puppeteer’s feet are the puppet’s feet. (The female puppets have loose flowing skirts with no legs underneath.) The puppeteer controls the arms with two long rods, each attached at the wrist level of the puppet.

When the puppeteers dance, their movements reflect on an exaggerated scale through the bodies they carry. The gestures of the manipulator are not mirrored exactly; rather, the momentum of the physical impulse is transmitted through the material performer: the head bounces, the arms and legs wobble, and the bosom and posterior bob up and down. The puppet structure has evolved since the first performances – the concepts have become more complex, including ghosts, presidential candidates, soldiers, and pregnant women, but the structures themselves have become simpler, lighter, and more efficient, particularly for travel purposes. Sonago Idrissa, a metallurgist, explained to me that the general puppet structure has been altered so that the body parts are detachable, folding efficiently, while the heads are placed in metal cases to protect the integrity of the design structure during travel.

In developing the puppets, Evette was also inspired by how African performance traditions such as masquerades bring art to public spaces, creating an inclusive festive atmosphere. As noted on the company’s website, the giants’ mission is “to bring sculpture to the public.” (6) LGP provides a form of “street theatre” that is intended “for all audiences,” according to Evette. At the same time, he is wary of possible connections to traditions that continue to bear spiritual significance for many communities in West Africa. He wrote that “the desire to respect living practices and to avoid evocations determined, by default, a more-or-less realistic esthetic, anthropomorphic with a treatment based on paintings.” (7) He wanted to distinguish his puppets from wooden masks used in harvest celebrations and funeral rites, like the stylized Bwa plank masks with simple geometric facial features. Although exaggerated in scale, the LGP puppets bear formed noses, ears, and lips, less stylized eyes, along with realistic details such as eyelashes and eyebrows, for instance.

Yet the distinction between the sacred and the secular in the puppetry performances is less clear. American scholar Kenneth Gross points out that puppets are haunted by earlier uses of fetishes, masks, and other sacred objects: “[They] hold within themselves relics of these stranger uses, the sacral and the playful together, surviving into the present in disguise, but speaking out to our embarrassment and our fright.” (8) In West Africa, the distance from the origins of sacred objects to present-day puppets is not nearly as wide a gap as in European contexts. The Togolese puppetry master Danaye Kalanfie, founder of the country’s national troupe, still refers to the performing objects as “fetishes.” He maintains that the connections of the puppets he creates to their predecessors and to the ancestral spirits they represent are important. (9) In performance, despite the modern aesthetic of the large puppets, then, earlier forms of full-body puppets used in masquerades are evoked, like the stylized animal masks of the Bwa and Nunuma peoples. Masked dances are presented regularly for festivals, if not for spiritual ceremonies, and therefore, the forms are easily brought to mind for local spectators, whether intentionally or not. In this way, the French-African puppets connect back to local cultures even while they distinguish themselves aesthetically.

While the overall aesthetic is more realistic, we can still trace influences from several African ethnic groups in the LGP puppetry that speak to the metaphysical qualities of the puppets. In addition to inspiration from traditional masks, The LGP have incorporated the use of griots and the djembé drums from the Mossi. Drumming, like masked dances, was traditionally performed uniquely by initiates who connected to the spiritual world of ancestors. The griots recall this world through their sung histories. For LGP performances, singer Dramé Bakova narrates through song while the other griot musicians play balafon, (a wooden xylophone,) and three different types of drums: the tama, the djembé, and the doumdoum. The sound level of the percussive instruments aids in the success of the large-scale performances where words might be lost, but the music also signifies a quasi-spiritual event as well.

Joel Zongo explained to me that the use of the griots is essential in Burkinabe theatre, as they are the “transmitters of everything.” (10) Griots are regarded as historians, memorizing family lines, local stories, and proverbs. Although their position may not be as strong today as it was in the past, griots have been well respected and have played an important role in society. Thus, for African audiences, the use of drums and griots in LGP performances bear the significance of heritage and invoke a spiritual experience. The griots and drums draw audiences in through music, bringing folks together to celebrate. They also bear authority in moral storytelling, while quite literally giving vocal narration to the silent performance form. For example, in “The Dreams of the Grandparents,” a child living with this grandparent is told the story of a sacred chameleon. The child seeks the chameleon to play with it, provoking the lizard, which bites him. According to the proverb, the child must bite the chameleon back or he will die. Reflecting traditional beliefs in the respect of the forces of nature, the invented story is told through the giant baby and chameleon, but with authority from the voice of the griot singer.

Without warning, the LGP puppets enter a town and quickly stir up a captive audience. Their entrance, announced by the sound of drums, creates quite a spectacle and a certain aura of mysteriousness, if not fear, not unlike the arrival of a full-body puppet like the Zangbeto figure. Unlike hand-held marionettes, which create an intimate community, the giants command a presence that begins to attract a large audience from far away. As Zongo puts it, they “provide their own publicity.” (11) While many residents in Boromo may have grown accustomed to LGP, for other spectators, the experience is novel. Evette admits to this affect: “The first time, the audience is often distressed and we have to move gently in order to not create panic.” (12) As they approach, some spectators, at first, perceive real-life giants or genies before them.

In their vast scale, the puppets render those who move them and those who watch them into children by comparison. As Evette asserts: “The difference in scale between the spectators and the puppets is that of the relation between a young child and an adult.” (13) In fact, the group name, which means “The Big People,” comes from the manner in which children perceive adults. Because of their overwhelming presence, the puppets bear authority – even over our imaginations. Discussing their American cousins, Bread and Puppet, Kenneth Gross explains the phenomenon of the immense puppets: “Such paradoxes of scale and weight are what allow the puppet to measure the size of our dreams and imaginings, and also the size of our souls.” (14) The puppets, then, allow spectators of all ages to behold the extraordinary, as if through the eyes of a child – one who still believes in the existence of beings that are larger than life.

Gross relates the nature of the puppet, itself, to that of a child and of an adult who has lost something in growing up:

The hunger of the puppet also echoes the hunger of adults for a world they have lost or that they never possessed, shaping a theatre that possesses the poverty and lightness of dreams, a world in which being manipulated is itself a condition of paradoxical freedom, a yielding of the self to other, more hidden or alien powers. (15)

His metaphor captures the experience of audiences in the case of the LGP. These puppets bring spectators a vision of a world beyond. This world of dreams, the imagination lost in adulthood connects to the spiritual beliefs that persist in adults in many African societies. There is a belief in the power of forces beyond human influence and of the interconnectedness between all spirits in life, nature, and death. To that end, the giant puppets compel spectators to “yield” to a greater power, all the while they, themselves, yield to the human puppeteer.

In the case of Les Grandes Personnes, the spectator’s gaze is drawn upwards to the lofty heights of the giants, neglecting the presence of the puppeteer. Therefore, the audience’s perception in puppetry performance is complicated in the instance of the African giants. In puppetry practices where the puppeteer remains partially or entirely visible, spectators remain aware of two bodies at the same time while they suspend their disbelief to accept a single presence as the two move together. Here, when the puppeteer and puppet move as one, the audience loses the ability to perceive how the puppeteer’s controlling actions are distinct from the puppet’s actions. The single presence is more inherent so the possibilities of concurrent foci on the manipulator and the manipulated are less evident for the audience. This can be seen clearly when the puppets march: the giant puppets have legs that attach at the base to the puppeteers’ feet; when the puppeteers step forward, their feet move as the puppets’ feet. Hence, the movement for both subjects is in fact one movement, rather than two movements, one the effect of the other. This is not true, however, of the puppets’ arms and hands, which are separated by poles from the puppeteers’ own limbs. Yet because of the size differentiation, the spectators’ perception often allows for only the large subject.  

There is also another “double vision” at stake in the perception of puppet performance. American scholar Steve Tillis explains that “the audience sees the puppet, through perceptions and through imagination, as an object and as a life.” (16) This, too, becomes complicated in the case of LGP in Burkina Faso when audience members neglect the materiality of the puppets and perceive only a living genie. Audience in France might favor the material performer over the living performer who is dwarfed, but they will remain conscious of the puppet’s object-ness all the same. However, the perception of the giants as non-living matter might be forgotten in an African context, just as the object-ness of wooden masks is overlooked in performances that communicate with the spiritual world. 

In West African full-body mask performances such as the Sogo Bó, the presence of the human performer is fully negated as they temporarily become the puppet and their human identity is suspended. The LGP human performers do not fully disappear; however, their presence (or lack of presence) is complicated by the local perception, which is accustomed to denying it. If what generally makes puppetry seem magical is the audience’s willingness to not see the human performer and to accept the object as living, in Burkina Faso, a mystical potential is stronger for audiences trained not to see the real and to accept the object as living spirit. 

The role of the puppeteer in traditional African masquerade, or full-body puppetry “is a role with mystical attributes that has been likened to returning to the womb and a responsibility that can only be assumed by an initiate,” as Marie Sue and Peter Paul Rosen explain in their book on Malian Sogo Bó puppetry. (17) Although the puppeteers are not fully covered in the case of Les Grandes Personnes, they, themselves, lack a subjective presence as they have comparably less matter than the puppets they control. Indeed, from a distance, only the puppets are visible to spectators, particularly in the case of the female puppets, whose skirts cover the puppeteers’ heads. Furthermore, the movements of the human and the puppet are not presented side by side with one clearly instigating the other; instead the two move together, as one.

In a way, then, the LGP puppeteers are like magicians because they seem to perform metaphysical feats. Margaret Williams considers that both the magician and the puppeteer “manipulate not only objects but also audience perception”; they “set up an interactive relation between performer and objects, and at times even seem to create the sense of a psychic force between them.” (18) Like any good magician, the puppeteers do not reveal to their audience the trick at hand; the puppets appear to move of their own accord to spectators who only perceive the giants. Zongo explains how the connection between the controller and the controlled is complete: “If I move my left shoulder… I know that [the puppet] will move, too. So whatever I do, that’s what the giant does.” (19) In this way, the puppeteers are directly connected to the puppets, rather than separated by string or rod. Williams elaborates that puppetry and magic share “a point of intersection between acting and manipulation that is not only physical but visual and psychological.” (20) As with all puppets, the LGP puppeteer will move their own legs and arms to induce the puppet’s motions, as if they were a single actor. Visually, however, the magic is effective to spectators who perceive the giant moving on its own.

The fabulous creatures represented by Les Grandes Personnes realize an affective potential when African audiences perceive the giants as non-human entities. Gross describes Bread and Puppet Theater’s puppets as “papier-mâché gods who belong to some more impersonal but still human world, their gestures slowed down, at once ritualized and clearly theatrical.” (21) In this way, the very movements of the large puppets – realistic as they are – dancing, walking, and shaking hands, are perceived as rituals, because of the scale distortion. Ethnographers like Olenka Darkowska-Nidzgorski have recorded how, in masquerade performances and ceremonies of the Egungun in Yoruba lands and the Dogon of Mali, initiated performers are effectively priests. They are often considered to enter a trance, and audience members are transported spiritually through the experience.

While the LGP performers are artists rather than initiates, there is often the possibility of a strong mystical affect for their spectators when they perform. Zongo recalls how, on more than one occasion, the puppets, like gods, seem to possess a power that overwhelms the spectators: “Oftentimes, there are even people who faint... If they see [the puppet], they believe that it’s actual genies that are approaching. If you try to touch them [with the puppet’s hand], you will see that there are people who actually fall down.” (22) Another puppeteer and sculptor with the group since 2010, Souleymane Djenda, recounts a particular experience: “I remember, we were in a particular village for a show, there are elderly people who run, run to their houses, and shut [the doors.] There are others, if you hold out the [puppet’s] hand, they scream!” (23) While French spectators might experience delight, beholding the puppets in wonder, African audiences might perceive the living embodiments of genies, in the giants.

Over the past few years, the group has begun to receive international attention. Les Grandes Personnes d’Afrique was awarded a 2013 international prize from the Francophone Parliamentary Assembly, and they have inspired similar large-scale puppetry groups in Benin (The Giants of Thanako) and Ivory Coast. Evette’s history of the group’s development is a chapter in the 2011 PUCK edition on African puppetry. Les Grandes Personnes of Boromo were also included in the 2013 documentary film by Christian Lajoumard. (24) The group performs regularly at opening ceremonies for theatre festivals such as Rendez Vous Chez Nous. They have toured throughout West Africa and to France and Spain. (25) With Evette, they travelled to South Africa to train artists in giant puppet techniques for the show “Giant Match” for the 2010 World Cup and also working with the Nama Company of Mali. These trips are often sponsored through Evette’s home organization in Aubervilliers, France. The group in Boromo subsists mainly on funding brought in from the association’s training center and the attached canteen.

Most of the Burkinabe group’s work is presented locally and regionally. Some shows aim at teaching health lessons to children. For example, a recent project taught dental care with a giant mouth and a correspondingly large toothbrush. Another project used an enormous eye to show the consequences of improper hygiene leading to eye infections. Other shows offer social commentary, including the 2005 project, “La grande famille,” (“The Big Family”), about a mixed-race marriage and the ensuing family conflicts. The most political piece to date was “La déroute,” (“Military Route”), performed in Ivory Coast in 2012, which told the story of the Burkinabe people who fought and were killed or forced to flee after the 2002 military coup.

I will conclude with a look at the group’s most recent project, developed with members of the French company in February 2016. While not limited to the giant puppets, the show, “Les Tabliers du couchant…,” (“The Sunset Sales Booths”) reflects the phenomenon of how material object performers communicate on multiple levels. The artists brought to life an African marketplace at nighttime with products such as wind, sun, and moon. (For this puppet, the three elements were vertical levels in a full body puppet. The puppeteer’s face was visible only in the middle level, while he manipulated the lower level with his feet and the upper level with his arms.) As vendors set up their wares for sale in the local market, seven tables were set up, using different types of puppets from miniature sculptures to full body puppets, and from shadow puppets to glove puppets. Each table symbolized a spiritual or abstract notion, such as “emptiness,” “enigmas,” and “emigration.” Audience members moved from one table to the next to watch the progression of “sales pitches,” as if they were visiting the marketplace.

Recalling a number of traditional objects in the context of a routine activity, this project reflects the continuities in local cultures in the contemporary presentation. For a Western audience, all aspects of the show would be foreign, exotic. A West African audience, however, would recognize the concept’s everyday location and activity and would appreciate the juxtaposition of the otherworldly wares for sale. They would perceive both the puppet forms before them and the traditional forms haunting the marketplace scene. In the mysterious hour of dusk, they would consider the haziness in distinguishing what was tangible in what they saw, heard, and touched. For as Les Grandes Personnes member Yakabo Dao asserts: “Sculpture, it’s something spiritual.” (26) This power of the puppet might not resonate for audiences of Evette’s work in Paris; however, it clearly resonates for Les Grandes Personnes in Burkina Faso.

Heather Jeanne Denyer is a PhD Candidate in Theatre and Performance at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her dissertation is “Re-Defining Gender and Sexuality through New Francophone Theatre in West Africa.”

Author’s Note: My most sincere thanks go to Christophe Evette, who invited me to visit his studio in Aubervilliers in October 2015; to Yakobo Konaté for granting me an interview in Paris; to Bomavé Konaté for sharing his work with me; and especially to Dri Zongo, his family, and the entire Les Grandes Personnes d’Afrique association, who graciously welcomed me to Boromo in November 2016. Much of the information for this article comes from the personal interviews I executed then. Any misrepresentations or translation errors are my own.