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Sexual and Spiritual R-Evolution through Animism: The Feminine Semiotics of Puppetry


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The following article interprets resistant representational strategies of the feminine through animism based creative practices such as puppetry. Acknowledging critical issues at the heart of identity, representation and embodiment in South Africa today, the Feminine Semiotics of animism seek new pathways to imagining feminine form, theory and being. Liminality, multigeneity, leakage and perme-ability are key to understanding the embodied surfaces of the Feminine Semiotic as it arises in animist puppetry practices. Puppetry reveals itself as a sentient tool that simultaneously exposes the constructs of being whilst engaging in what could be described as a performative alchemy of imagination and form. The Feminine Semiotics of puppetry offer a representational strategy for syncretic identities in a complex marriage between content and form, intersections of metaphor and critique, surface and innovation represented through the thresholds of animist practices. In the 21 st century, women's puppetry is emerging as a means to push the margins of complex political and sexual discourse as the language of the feminine body expressed in her multiplicitous identities and sexualities of resistance. The article interprets the syncretic, threshold spaces of creative practice through the theories of filmmaker and cultural theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha (1987) and what she terms the " inappropriate other " that characterizes the emergent third in feminine representation. Through the expression of the inappropriate other, identities of difference recreate, deconstruct and refract each other, rather than simply replicating or resisting traditional conventions (Minh-ha, 1987). Puppetry, as the emergent third in this light, may lead to alchemy in practice, expressed between the surfaces of women's identity in critique and creativity. The practices of two significant female artists, Nandipha Mntambo and Jill Joubert, explore the sexual and political intersectionality of animism in sculptural and puppetry practices. Contemporary animism-based creative practices are shown to proffer strategies for inlaga 2
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Journal of Resistance Studies Number 2 - Volume 2 - 2016
Sexual and Spiritual R-Evolution
through Animism:
The Feminine Semiotics of Puppetry
Aja Marneweck
University of Cape Town, South Africa
The following article inter prets resistant representational strategies of the femi-
nine through animism based creative practices such as puppetry. Acknowledging
critical issues at the heart of identity, representation and embodiment in South
Africa today, the Feminine Semiotics of animism seek new pathways to imagining
feminine form, theory and being. Liminality, multigeneity, leakage and perme-
ability are key to understanding the embodied surfaces of the Feminine Semiotic
as it arises in animist puppetry practices. Puppetry reveals itself as a sentient tool
that simultaneously exposes the constructs of being whilst engaging in what could
be described as a performative alchemy of imagination and form. The Feminine
Semiotics of puppetry offer a representational strategy for syncretic identities in
a complex marriage between content and form, intersections of metaphor and
critique, surface and innovation represented through the thresholds of animist
practices. In the 21st century, women’s puppetry is emerging as a means to push
the margins of complex political and sexual discourse as the language of the femi-
nine body expressed in her multiplicitous identities and sexualities of resistance.
The article interprets the syncretic, threshold spaces of creative practice through
the theories of filmmaker and cultural theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha (1987) and
what she terms the “inappropriate other” that characterizes the emergent third in
feminine representation. Through the expression of the inappropriate other, iden-
tities of difference recreate, deconstruct and refract each other, rather than simply
replicating or resisting traditional conventions (Minh-ha, 1987). Puppetry, as the
emergent third in this light, may lead to alchemy in practice, expressed between the
surfaces of women’s identity in critique and creativity. The practices of two sig-
nificant female artists, Nandipha Mntambo and Jill Joubert, explore the sexual
and political intersectionality of animism in sculptural and puppetry practices.
Contemporary animism-based creative practices are shown to proffer strategies for
inlaga 2-2016 22 jan 2017.indd 134 2017-01-22 19:09
expansive creative distillations that provide new trajectories for feminine resistance
and empowerment.
The Feminine Semiotics of Puppetry: Towards an
Emergent Third
We are interstitial creatures and border citizens by nature insiders/
outsiders at the same time – and we rejoice in this paradoxical condi-
tion. In the act of crossing a border, we nd temporary emancipation.
(Gómez-Peña, 2001)
In the 21st century, women’s puppetry practices are emerging to push the
margins of political, cultural and sexual identities. Pre-gurative and pro-
creative artistic practices such as puppetry can provide women with tools
for both complex expression and creative plurality, which this article un-
packs specically in light of their signicance as a feminizing, de-colo-
nizing form of artistic resistance. I explore how animism-based creative
practices such as puppetry can evoke critical and contentious languages
of a co-constructive femininity in strategies of resistance today. Writ-
ing on critical creative and political approaches to the re-invention of
resistance, Sara Motta (2014: 11) insists that it is not only a necessity but
our responsibility to re-imagine emancipatory politics within feminizing,
decolonizing approaches that foster the creation of ourselves and our
world differently.
Animism and puppetry offer multiple pathways into re-imagining
epistemology through embodied, pre-gurative knowledge systems that,
as I will explore, engage multiple levels of meaning, sentience and aes-
thetics simultaneously. In light of the feminization of resistance set forth
by Motta (2013), I articulate this complex approach to exploring multi-
plex identity through emancipatory artistic practices such as puppetry
as a Feminine Semiotic. The Feminine Semiotic is a critical as well as
embodied approach to interpreting the potential of animist practices as
resistant feminine creativity. It is a proposal for creative, critical strategy
that addresses the spaces of the sacred feminine, liminality, ux, excess
and transformation held within puppetry practices.
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Journal of Resistance Studies Number 2 - Volume 2 - 2016
Puppetry is one of the oldest forms of multidisciplinary creative
practice. As an artistic and cultural phenomenon, puppetry has found
its way through antiquity to the present day in many countries across
the world. Taking its roots from animism, puppetry is performance that
seeks the life within things. As a creative and discursive discipline in its
own right, puppetry posits the performative object and performing things
at the forefront of artistic practices as well as critical discourses. Puppets
combine anthropomorphic imagination and magical thinking with the
plastic arts, materials, objects and the form of things which
serve both as important metaphors and tangible expressions of our
continually changing understanding of what it means to be human.
They emerge as vital artistic elements at times when we question and
reconceive longstanding paradigms about human beings and our re-
lationship to the inanimate world, offering concrete means of play-
ing with new embodiments of humanity. (Posner, Orenstein and Bell,
2014: 2)
Masks and gurines have been used throughout the African conti-
nent in myriad diverse contexts (Joubert, 2006). Indeed, there are many
masking, doll and gurine traditions that have evolved to meet the par-
ticular needs of various societies and transformed into contemporary
modes of expression. A key to the revitalization of puppetry and its
import in contemporary performance practices is its potential for inter-
disciplinarity. Puppetry exists through combinations of the performing
and plastic arts and cannot be clearly conned into any one category. At
its core, it combines the kinesthetic and the constructed object/form
with multiple layers of meaning-making, metaphor and symbolism.
Puppetry’s status as an underdog to the acknowledged separatist
practices of performance and ne art posits itself on the thresholds of
categorization and legitimization. It exists in a state of collaboration, hy-
bridity and liminality. This multiplicity also places it in a shared position
of marginality to dominant discourse, as an inappropriate other of the
performance and art worlds. Today in South Africa, the term Puppetry is
often loosely incorporated into the interstructural category of Visual Per-
formance. The genre offers an entry point to contemporary performance
inlaga 2-2016 22 jan 2017.indd 136 2017-01-22 19:09
and it arises in many different modes such as performance art, move-
ment, theatre, multimedia and storytelling, amongst others.
Puppetry is a threshold, border practice concerned with creative
multidisciplinarity that could provide a potentially resistant representa-
tion of the subaltern feminine. The Feminine Semiotics of puppetry
offer a representational strategy for syncretic identities in a complex
marriage between content and form, metaphor and critique, surface and
innovation, as represented through the emergent “third” spaces of ani-
mist practices. The trajectories of embodied, original, and imaginative
practices offer theoretical excess that I believe is crucial to exploring
South African women’s creativity. They invoke the liminal and inappro-
priate other in narratives of complex feminine experience.
The Feminine Semiotic arises as a term that embraces postcolonial
and feminist cultural theory in order to re-imagine where materialist and
radical divisions might meet with puppetry and animism, and to imag-
ine embodied knowledge strategies for feminine performance in South
Africa today. I develop the terminology of the Feminine Semiotic from
the transgressive body of the female imaginary proposed by radical femi-
nist theorists Hélène Cixous (1976) and Luce Irigaray (1985), integrating
Julia Kristeva’s notion of the semiotic as that which disrupts the order
of the masculine symbolic (1982). I align it to the converging material-
ist/radical underpinnings of Sue Ellen Case’s new poetics (1998) as well as
Geraldine Harris and Elaine Aston’s search for “embodied knowledge”
as a paradigm for knowing (2008). I also most importantly interpret this
re-designation of the libidinal feminine body of desire within the “third”
space of the inappropriate other as set forth by Trinh T. Minh-ha within
a postcolonial feminist framework. It is my aligning of these concepts
which has guided my understanding of the creative research at play in
women’s puppetry practices and the complex interplays of meaning and
subversion in these art forms.
French theorist Julia Kristeva has advanced a feminist position on
feminine sexual signication by re-interpreting the word “semiotic” into
a Post-Lacanian theoretical approach to analyzing the construction of
sexuality and division. This re-reading of the term provides a feminist
distinction between what Kristeva interprets as the semiotic and the symbol-
ic, and the resultant signication composed of these two binary elements.
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Journal of Resistance Studies Number 2 - Volume 2 - 2016
Kelly Oliver describes the semiotic element of Kristeva’s theory as the in-
terpretation of libidinal bodily drives associated with the rhythms, tones
and kinetics of signifying practices. It is a “discharge of drives” (Oliver,
1998: 2) linked to the maternal body which creates her semiotics as a
destabilizing, feminized element of representation. The symbolic aspect
of signication for Kristeva is linked to the grammar, rigidity and struc-
ture of reference and language. For Kristeva, the imaginary/semiotic can
never be clearly separated from the symbolic/thetic, but always operates
to destabilize the process of subjectication. The stasis of structuralist
approaches to cultural production poses a problem for Kristeva whose
theories of subjectivity look towards the potential heterogeneity of sub-
jective experience, rather than the xity of homogeneity in language and
consciousness (Moi, 1985: 166).
South African cultural theorist Sarah Nuttall asks, how do we de-
segregate critical thinking and artistic practice in order to explore the in-
terwoven aspects of South African women’s identity at play today (2010)?
The complex trajectories and constant entwinements of subaltern femi-
nine identity require more in-depth exploration in creative practice, what
Nuttall calls a “thinking across from the inside” (Nuttall, 2010). In or-
der to avoid the pitfalls of reductionism, we cannot assume a feminine
biologism or category of the feminine, outside of the complex inter-
sectionalities of gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion,
caste, age, nationality and other complex components of identity. The
fundamentalism of a concept of “woman” is one that has haunted the
western feminist movement with exclusionism on multiple levels. Post-
colonial, transnational and subaltern feminism since the early 1980’s has
confronted western feminist theory’s failure to adequately account for
racial and cultural difference in its critical approaches. Criticism of the
universalizing essentialism and biological determinism of the concept
of “woman” and “feminine” is inherent in any assertion of a universal
femininity and language. The concern is centered in the racial dynamics
and “habits” of privilege, which have perpetuated and established many
dominant social ideologies and prejudices across feminized movements
that privilege white subjectivities (Garrett, 2002: 40). Positions of other-
ness in the dynamics of separation are always reinforced in reference to
the non-other, the insider, the privileged subject of discourse (Spivak,
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The theories of lm-maker and postcolonial cultural theorist Trinh
T. Minh-ha inspire my research through what she terms the inappropriate
other that characterizes an emergent third space in women’s creative prac-
tices (Minh-ha, 1987). Minh-ha posits the theory of an “inappropriate
other” as a cultural and artistic strategy for transformative approaches
to feminine representation (Minh-ha, 1987). The moment the (artist)
woman changes her position from insider to out, she stands in an am-
biguous and complex space as neither subject nor other (Minh-ha, 1987).
This position as an “inappropriate other” both inhabits and confounds
liminality. It illuminates difference while subversively straddling both the
inside and the outside of coherent identities.
The moment the insider steps out from the inside, she is no longer just
an insider. She necessarily looks in from the outside while also looking
from the inside out. Not quite the same, not quite the other, she stands
in that undetermined threshold place where she constantly drifts in and
out. (Minh-ha, 1987: 3)
In this dynamic, the artist always has “two gestures… that of af-
rming ‘I am like you’ while persisting in her difference…” (Minh-ha,
1987: 3). In the body of the inappropriate other, denitions of clear-cut
difference are destabilized and reinvented. The body expresses both sep-
aration and multiplicity. It is both dened and ill-dened, where bound-
aries become unstable and in the telling of her (the individual woman’s)
experience “she knows she cannot speak of ‘them’ without speaking of
herself, of history without involving her story” (Minh-ha, 1987: 3).
The inappropriate other offers a feminine vehicle to meet Homi
K. Bhabha’s exploration of hybridity and third space in postcolonial
discourse. Hybridity has been a highly problematic term in postcolo-
nial theory, but it has also occupied a central place within it (Meredith,
1998). Hybridity, according to Bhabha, is the process by which colonial-
ism attempts to homogenize difference by translating it into a singu-
lar translation model, “but then fails producing something familiar but
new” (Papastergiadis, 1997). This new, unexpected and resistant element
is what Bhabha termed “third space”, emerging from the interweaving
of elements of the colonizer and colonized, self and other, challenging
the validity and authenticity of any essentialist cultural identity (Mer-
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Journal of Resistance Studies Number 2 - Volume 2 - 2016
edith, 1998). The hybrid third space complicates racial stereotyping and
negativity by subverting essentialist and oppressive discourses within and
without their own failing languages. The failure of essentialism to con-
tain the third space throws all attempts to essentialize subject-position
and identity into disrepute.
Minh-ha calls for a renegotiation of difference, difference “that is
not opposed to sameness, nor synonymous with separateness” (Minh-
ha, 1987: 2). Perception of difference, in this paradigm, can operate as a
mode of complex signiers and contexts, in which it does not give rise
to conict merely through separatism, where difference is “beyond and
alongside conict” (Minh-ha, 1987: 2).
Many of us still hold on to the concept of difference, not as a tool of
creativity to question multiple forms of repression and dominance, but
as a tool of segregation, to exert power on the basis of racial and sexual
essences. The apartheid type of difference. (Minh-ha, 1987: 2)
Minh-ha insists that we refuse the presumption that an insider can
only speak with authority about their own culture (Minh-ha, 1987). Such
presumptions of exclusive and legitimized knowledge imply that the out-
sider posits himself or herself as the all-knowing subject of the outside
environment, from which the insider is essentially excluded (Minh-ha,
1987). In this dynamic, the oppressive hierarchies between “us” and
“them”, subject and object, self and other, remain. Minh-ha declares
this process as a paradoxical twist of the colonial mind (Minh-ha, 1987:
3). The insider may be granted the power of legitimacy, as long as it in-
forms the standardizing of difference between insider/out, as long as it
informs the all-knowing subject of colonial discourse (Minh-ha, 1987).
The other in this dynamic is always the “shadow of the self ” and thus
is never concrete, never stable, never subject, never really “all knowing”
(Minh-ha, 1987: 3). This positioning denies the intersections of binary
recourse to facilitate suture, rupturem or new surfaces for meaning. Au-
thorship in this dynamic is concerned with the power of validation and
legitimacy that essentialist divisions such as stereotyping seem to insist
upon (Minh-ha, 1987).
A proposal for a truly resistant Feminine Semiotics then, it would
seem, requires a reading of cultural signication that embraces the plu-
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rality of “subject”, destabilizing the inherent homogeneity of the sym-
bolic. Representation through an inappropriate other in this light may
lead to an alchemy of practice that is able to birth the new surfaces of
women’s performance, new surfaces of the female body and psyche in
representation. Representation becomes a process of alchemy that re-
quires that artists create “a ground that belongs to no one… Otherness
becomes empowerment, critical difference when it is not given, but re-
created” (Minh-ha, 1987: 3).
Puppetry derived from animist thinking and practice, in its own
right, facilitates meeting points of diverse elements, the purpose of
which may or may not be to intentionally render sutures in dominant
discourse, but which through their very intersections express the com-
plexity of identity today. The gesture of multiplicity inherent to the form
and meaning of puppetry holds great signicance for expressing the dif-
cult, multiplicitous and entangled pathways of South African women’s
experiences and identities at play in the social, economic and political
landscapes of the country. With the global resurgence of scholarly inter-
est in puppetry, there has been a proliferation of writing that considers
why the art form holds such power and potential within the contempo-
rary creative arts and material performance. William Kentridge speaks of
the artice of puppetry, and asks:
What is it in us that can watch a carved piece of wood, see its manipula-
tion, be aware of this the whole time and still be unable to stop seeing
a transformation of the object (Kentridge, 2001: 2).
This statement highlights the complex ambiguity of intimacy and
alienation that puppetry brings to performance. It begins to elucidate the
mechanisms of complex performance wherein the audience is simulta-
neously aware that what they are watching is a construct of the manipu-
lator, but that the puppet exists for them in and because of its materiality
and capacity for sentience (Kentridge, 2001). The subversive potential
that puppetry offers strategies of representation of the feminine is its
ability to transgress boundaries of subjectivity through the construct of
the puppet itself in relation to the body and imagination. It is also the
ability of puppetry to involve the audience in subtle ways, to contribute
to its creation through their own suspension of disbelief, that makes the
medium so effective.
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Journal of Resistance Studies Number 2 - Volume 2 - 2016
Theorist Jane Taylor says:
Puppets can provide an extraordinary dimension to a theatrical proj-
ect… because every gesture is, as it were, metaphorized. The puppet
draws attention to its own artice, and we as the audience willingly sub-
mit ourselves to the ambiguous processes that at once deny and assert
the reality of what we watch. (Taylor, 1998: vii)
The puppet always exists through multiple levels of meaning and
signication. The puppet exists through plurality, through the interplay
of multiple bodies as a co-constructed reality between objects, perform-
ers and community. These occur in the structure, form and symbolism
of the object itself. They also manifest in the multiple bodies held in
the puppeteer/puppet relationship and then the puppet/puppeteer/
audience relationship. In many instances, more than one performer is
required to operate a puppet, so the bodies speak to multiple points of
reference operating in the singular subject. Through the body of the
performed puppet, deliberate attention is brought to the inherent multi-
plicity of being that facilitates life.
The approach to puppetry in this instance displays how multiple
levels of difference and experience can shift between the bodies of the
individual, the object and the community in the artistic process. In the
multiplicity of representation, complex identities recreate, deconstruct
and refract each other, rather than simply replicating or resisting tradi-
tional conventions. The use of puppetry allows the possibilities of ar-
tice to co-exist with transformational sentient kinesiologies in perfor-
mance and improvisation. Puppetry has the potential to simultaneously
present and disrupt the body just as it disrupts static audience identica-
tion with the object/subject of performance. It troubles character as well
as notions of the gaze of the audience, complicating their identications
through patriarchal notions of sexuality and gender.
Puppetry, as the melding and meeting point of various surfaces and
bodies of meaning and construct, may be seen as representative of an
emergent third in this light. It is these multiple performing differences
that converge in the puppet that render it an inappropriate other, as that
which both expresses and confounds construct and being, visually and
critically bridging inside and outside, critique and aesthetic, binary and
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liminality. Puppetry reveals itself as a sentient tool that simultaneously
exposes the constructs of being in the sculpted, created form (morph)
and the performing feminine body, whilst engaging in what I can only
express as a performative alchemy of presence and embodiment (forces,
power, abjection, creation and decay, sentience, emotion).
Puppetry, Animism and Resistant Femininities
There is an inaccurate assumption that puppetry as it arises in South
Arica today is derived from European art forms and that there are no
indigenous puppetry traditions in South Africa (Joubert, 2010; Kruger,
2014). This is, I believe, largely due to issues around classication, genre
and epistemological categories in western puppet-theatre. What makes
an object a puppet and what makes it a gurine, a fetish or a doll? Simi-
larly, in light of this article on the Feminine Semiotic, we may ask, what
constitutes the feminine and how are the categories of femininity cre-
ated? What limits and homogenization do these categories bring to bear
on radical identity and creative practices? Can we clearly state what a
puppet is and is not, and is this classication relevant to explorations of
resistant, subaltern feminine identity playing out in radical contemporary
animist practices?
Leading puppet theorists such as Penny Francis would argue that
what clearly distinguishes puppetry tradition as a category is that puppets
are primarily theatrical in function and are fabricated specically to serve
in puppet theatre (Kruger, 2014). Marie Kruger writes at length about
the classication of contemporary puppetry and the difculties of genre.
The complex strands and contemporary occurrences of puppet theatre
become entangled with other categories such object theatre, multimedia
and visual performance to name a few. Yet these categories themselves
are lightly held in the multi-textual eld of performance studies, a highly
contentious and much-debated area of scholarship in which the param-
eters of classication and genre are unstable and volatile at best (Ker-
shaw, 2009).
Kruger explores Jurkowski’s description that puppet theatre differ-
entiates itself from live theatre, as the main and basic features of pup-
petry are the speaking and performing objects “which make use of the
physical sources of the vocal and driving powers that are present beyond
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Journal of Resistance Studies Number 2 - Volume 2 - 2016
the object (Jurkowski, 1988, p. 31)” (Kruger, 2014: 4). The concept of
the puppet as a performing gure driven by “powers beyond the object”
is signicant in light of an exploration of the animist origins of pup-
petry. Jurkwoski writes ardently of the incorporation of puppetry and its
different social, religious and political functions in societies throughout
history. Objects, things and the matter of early man have been linked to
magic, the religious and the mimetic (Jurkowski, 1988).
Professor of history and anthropology of religion, Tord Olsson,
writes about animist ritual performance practices in Mali, Northern Af-
rica, specically those of the Bambara, who are considered to incor-
porate their own indigenous puppetry traditions in specically fetish-
based practices. Here the fetish-object is used to ritually “conjure” the
presence of persons who are now ancestors. Olsson writes about how
this creation of presence, central to fetishism and also central to puppetry,
as Jurkowski insists, is a complicated theoretical part of understanding
performance (be it in the form of entertainment, ritual or personal prac-
tice). It is this invisible presence, which allows the fetish to affect and
“alter moods, social relations, bodily dispositions and states of mind”
(Schieffelin, 1998 quoted in Olsson, 2013: 194). Olsson writes of a ritual
presence in Malian fetish practices and puppetry in which there is no dis-
cernment between ritual object and person, living or dead, or other-than
human, nor is there a distinction between the performer in the mask and
the mask itself. “In meta ritual discourses one sometimes says that the
fetish–person arrives at his object, at other times one says that the fetish
person issues from his object” (Olsson, 2013: 323).
Kruger has explored the links between ritual performance and Af-
rican puppetry tradition in her writing on the use of puppetry in the
Gelede masquerades of Yoruba communities in Nigeria and Benin. The
traditions offer entry points to multidisciplinary ritual performance,
which challenges the boundaries of traditional western puppetry prac-
tices. Kruger’s scholarship explores how puppets serve as “agents for
the transmission and preservation of social concepts”, which is done
through customary public rituals that serve both to entertain and to ex-
press social criticism and control. The puppets are used in magic-reli-
gious ceremonies and healing rituals, such as the annual Gelede festival
during the dry season. Here the boundaries between ritual and theatre
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begin to blur, and as Kruger asserts, public puppet ritual takes the form
of theatre. This theatre serves as entertainment but also to impart and
dene social roles, structures and belief systems specically around fem-
inine procreative power.
It is signicant to note that the Gelede puppetry traditions evident
in masquerade ritual performances represent what Kruger calls a highly
visible, artistic expression of the Yoruba’s belief in the power of women.
These puppets, which are in fact gures built on to the top of masks
used primarily in dancing, are used in service and honor of the feminine.
They are “staged on every imaginable occasion, from a simple act of
housewarming to elaborate funeral ceremonies” (Kruger, 2016: 3). The
Gelede performances are offered as sacrices to honor the female elders
of the community and are also highly linked to women’s procreative im-
portance. Kruger says that in this belief system, it is held that women,
particularly the elderly, “possess certain extraordinary powers equal to or
greater than those of the gods and ancestors – a view that is reected in
praises acknowledging them as ‘our mothers’, ‘the gods of society’, and
‘the owners of the world’” (Kruger, 2016: 4). She explores the origins of
the word Gelede as offered by Drewal, which refers to the placation, ado-
ration and respect of women’s sexual power and sexual bodies. Thus the
Gelede ritual puppetry performances form part of an elaborate worship
of the feminine and the benet of her powers for the whole community
(Drewal, 1990 cited in Kruger, 2016: 5).
If contemporary puppets are only considered puppets if used in
occidental theatrical contexts, we begin to homogenize and limit much
more complex and politically challenging renderings of the practice.
Feminism has tackled issues of visibility and invisibility in theory and
politics, particularly by reclaiming the political spaces of the personal by
women of multiple races. Critical race and gender practitioners work-
ing with theories and processes of intersectionality such as Audre Lorde
(1997) have acknowledged the connections between personal experience
and the larger social and political structures of gender and race. Kim-
berlé Williams Crenshaw has written of the necessity to recognize “the
social and systemic in what was formerly perceived as isolated and in-
dividual” in the identity politics of women, people of color, gays and
lesbians, or anybody considered “other” (Crenshaw, 1991: 1241). Thus
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Journal of Resistance Studies Number 2 - Volume 2 - 2016
by looking only toward the public theatrical occurrences of puppetry
practice, we negate inappropriate other spaces, third spaces, where femi-
nine forms of puppetry might arise.
Women’s gurine traditions arising from Southern Africa are most-
ly ignored, prescribed in general to tourist craft, women’s and girl’s mate-
rial traditions, and loosely delegated to the personal, domestic space of
“dolls”. Elizabeth Dell explains the ceremonial use of fertility gures
specically associated with feminine identity and sexual maturation in
representation across Southern Africa (1998). There seems to be a dual-
istic function of these objects. The rst function serves as a socializing
play tool for young girls, allowing them to mimic their mother’s breast-
feeding and nurturing (Dell, 1998). Yet dolls and children’s dolls “pro-
voke difculties in their classication because the child’s fantasy gives
them special psychological functions, thus placing them on the ritualistic
and especially animistic level… the endowment of life to a dead thing”
(Jurkowski, 1988: 144).
Dell explores the different instances in which the gurines, often bi-
sexual in form (combining female and male symbolism) function across
the life spans of women. They do not just represent wished for babies,
but also represent women when they reach child bearing age and men-
struation, serve as tools of sexual instruction to initiates, and are used
for social education and the processes of feminine maturation. They are
also very specic tools for adult ritual performance dealing with “imagi-
nation and projection”. “The latter can function as intermediaries be-
tween living and dead, between women and their powers to reproduce…
a system of metaphorical thought centering around fertility” (Dell, 1998:
13). Figurine and “doll” practices, such as those of the Venda in South
Africa, sit deeply and resonantly within multisexual, gender political
symbolism, feminine rites of passage and sexual knowledges that are
very hidden from masculine, western epistemologies and discourses. My
hunch is that many more politically resonant domestic “puppetry” ritu-
als stemming from feminine empowerment traditions survive in deeply
resilient and resistant personal practices by women in the subaltern.
South African puppetry’s origins in animist creative practices pro-
vide fertile entry points into this primarily embodied art form. As I have
established, puppetry has a unique ability to facilitate an interdisciplinary
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meeting place of construct and sentience. Animism brings to the fore
the resistant and interstitial potential of play, ritual and imagination that
feeds puppetry practices. It offers invisible entry points to play and ritual
deeply concerned with a new way of being in the world. It is the sym-
biotic potential of everything and everyone around, within, above and
below, everything with which humanity shares this universe, of form and
sentience that is the heart of animism. Animism holds open the doors
of not just an alternative resistance to the destructive segregations of
hegemonic discourse and systems, but of living awareness of the uidity
of boundaries so crucial to revisioning identity, sexuality, self, environ-
ment and being in the 21st century. Radical feminine modes of knowing
through embodied (pro)creativity as well as dissolution, align to animist
impulses where “materials of all sorts, with various and variable proper-
ties, and enlivened by the forces of the cosmos, mix and meld with one
another in the generation of things” (Ingold, 2014: 294).
Secularisation has resulted in the brutal damming up of puppetry’s
mainsprings of dramaturgy, which arose from the medium’s natural
afnity to things spiritual, to ritual, religious ceremony, fear of the oth-
erworldly and the inexplicable… Animism has been stied, and ani-
mism…is the stuff of puppetry… (Francis, 2007: 7)
This statement draws us back to the non-secular, unseen and cate-
gorically ambivalent aspects of puppetry. The classication of puppetry,
when we consider its origins in magical thinking, always veers towards
a natural crossing of boundaries, an intermingling of forms, functions
and imagination.
Recently there has been a resurgence of scholarly interest in the
philosophy, concept and theories of animism and its specic occurrence
and inuence across the world today (Harvey, 2014). Anthony Kubiak
describes the animistic worldview as one that is inherently performative
at its core, expressing and embodying what he calls “the relational per-
sonness” of all manner of entities in the world (2012). This relationality
is highly signicant to the emergent third of the Feminine Semiotic in
that it expresses an interstitial place, both dened by the surfaces of
form and permeable to the forces of imagination, memory, myth, spirit,
emotion and being. Anthony Kubiak writes about a world that:
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… Is always-becoming, a world actualized and realized as process
through the performance of life. To live in such a world demands that
one be constantly alive to the place of others and otherness, that one
continually express one’s respect and gratitude to Otherness itself, sim-
ply because this is what opens us out into the Other and empties the
self… (Kubiak, 2012: 58)
Perhaps the problem is that the very real potential of animism is
actually something more than what we perceive with our eyes, but which
we can feel is there. This makes it critically and epistemologically volatile
and resistant to empirical discourse. Kubiak states that what is at stake
in animism is a turn away from categorical closures, subjectivities and
systematizations, favoring an awareness of “becomings, of processes, of
interdependencies at the level of thought, but also at the level of experi-
ence” (Kubiak, 2012: 57). Animism has been stigmatized in language
and thought as a religious belief system, but anthropologists today write
about new animism, that is animism understood in phenomenological
terms as an integrative and interrelational understanding of life, which
Tord Olsson says is inhabited by a number of persons, only some of
which are human and living (Olsson, 2013: 317).
It is this exciting potential of animism as a continuous, ever-porous
and mutable process, that expresses the inherent relationality and perme-
ability of nature and life itself. It also speaks to the ux and porousness
of categories that the Feminine Semiotics of puppetry seeks to render
present. Infused with what Kubiak calls an attitude, a stance of open-
ness, of awareness and appreciation, animism can be a conscious enact-
ment and performance. In this performance, all things can be perceived
to co-create one another in an ever-arising, “unending reciprocity be-
tween entities”, that allows each the space of their own unfolding, their
freedom to be (Kubiak, 2012: 58).
The Feminine Semiotic in the Living Sculpture of
Nandipha Mntambo
South African sculptor Nandipha Mntambo, in her solo exhibition The
Encounter (2009), uses her own body as a catalyst for radical animist ex-
pression, which I would consider to be a particularly Feminine Semiotic.
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Mntambo herself has declared that the biggest misconception about her
work is that it has a feminist agenda at its core. She speaks of her interest
in pushing the boundaries of attraction and repulsion, body and materi-
ality in an interview with Natasha Madzika. She says, “I’ve always been
interested in challenging our understanding of boundaries, pushing that
thin line that exists between attraction/repulsion, animal/human, and
male/female. It’s wonderful that my intentions are clear within how my
work is read” (2012). Mntambo’s sculpture and imagery blurs the visual
and material boundaries of the seen and unseen, self and other, mas-
culine and feminine, western and African, through what I would like to
term living animist sculpture.
Mntambo would not classify her work as “puppetry”, especially as
puppetry is stigmatized as a Western “craft” practice. This refers back
to the stigma of “puppetry” as popular, rather than high art. In many
respects, female artists ght constantly to be recognized as signicant
contributors to contemporary artistic practice and discourse (Aston and
Harris, 2008). In identifying a Feminine Semiotics within animist prac-
tices, I feel that it is signicant to locate and identify where animism is
practiced by female artists specically concerned with the permeability
of sexual boundaries and the multiple presences of desire, as Mntambo
herself has attested to. I do feel that there is value in recognizing and
exploring the complex feminine interplay of highly visible animist ele-
ments within Mntambo’s work. As a scholar and puppetry artist myself
concerned with uncovering the potential Feminine Semiotics at play in
puppetry, I offer a co-creative reading of how animism may potentially
be interpreted within Mntambo’s artwork.
The invocation of multiple, multi-sexual presences and persons in
Mntambo’s sculptures, through my own creative gaze, correlates to the
visible and invisible “presences” conjured in other African fetish and
puppetry traditions such as those of the Bambara and the Venda. These
presences are the foodstuffs of puppetry’s non-secular and counter-epis-
temological powers. Mntambo’s living sculptures, in my reading of their
visceral impact, play intimately with the seen and unseen of the object-
fetish-form, invoking highly present personalities in their morphology.
It is also what I perceive as the movement of permeability, melding and
transmutation that elicits for me, as a puppetry practitioner, an awareness
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of the living aspects evident in Mntambo’s sculpture. This living, artistic
gesture of permeability, in which the boundaries of self and other mu-
tate, invites the viewer as well as the artist into a creative process deeply
concerned with a new way of being in the world, a way of being where
“in favour of dissolution, …I enter into the other as the other enters into
me in a symbiosis” (Kubiak, 2012: 57).
The boundaries of coherent masculine identity, as well as the sub-
version of the masculine, is made highly visible through Mntambo’s rec-
lamation and re-working of cowhide a traditional product of cattle
agriculture and patriarchal economic power. Thembisa Waetjen writes of
rural patriarchal agrarian economies implemented by the Nguni people
of South Africa where “the raising, herding, and exchange of cattle in
particular, were exclusively male concerns… accompanied by an elabo-
rate system of gendered taboos and rituals” (2004: 37). Mntambo radi-
cally shifts and re-appropriates the symbol of the bull by intimately re-
shaping cowhide with her own naked body. In her sculptural animism,
she provides new ways of seeing multi-layered processes of being and
experience through the feminine. She invokes a cross-cultural symbol-
ism of the bull through a series of sculptures, videos and photographs
wherein her body becomes the vehicle for the revision of desire and
presence. In these sculptures, not only does Mntambo subvert traditional
patriarchal cross-cultural images, but she also reclaims the role of South
African women as the producers of living sculpture traditions. Through
her multimedia performance and sculptural works, she immerses her
own embodied, sexual presences in highly specic cross-gender, inter-
cultural images and interspecies iconographies. Mfundi Vundla (2012: 2)
writes of his encounter with the work:
One walks through the exhibition hearing multiple polyrhythmic nar-
ratives from a cowhide drum. The artist’s percussive voice takes us
through a range of emotions: aggression, anger, submission, self-love,
self-hate, ecstasy, the need for sanctuary… in a society such as ours in
which women are too often regarded as second class citizens… Mnt-
ambo’s feminist concerns are, in my view, tangents from the spine of
her aesthetics which possess an undercurrent of the spiritual.
In this exhibition, Mntambo hangs and positions moulds of her
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own female body, cast in cowhide in various tableaux in the exhibition
room. These cowhide body casts are set in various actions of movement,
suspended in the moment of kinesis, which in my own reading of their
suspension is anything but static or dead. The living sculptures call pres-
ence into the body casts, inhabited by the unseen persons and other than
persons evoked in their mimetic forms. In the one tableau of sculptures
called emabutfo (the name for traditional Swazi male warriors), multiple
cowhide bodies are suspended from the ceiling in military lines. Here
Mntambo confronts the “demarcation of war as male territory” by revi-
sioning cultural icons of aggression and ghting through the feminized,
animist body (Vundla, 2012: 2). She does this in another sculpture, a
single cowhide cast in the shape of her body, which opens into a volu-
minous skirt surrounded by cow hooves. Entitled Nandikeshvara, the title
evokes Hindu mythology in the Sanskrit Nandi, the name of the holy
bull, which serves as the mount of the god Shiva and as the gatekeeper
of the god and goddess Shiva and Parvati. The aligning of the bull to
masculine spiritual power is reimagined in the feminine sensuality of the
image, which is cast from Mntambo’s naked torso, highlighting her bare
breasts. This is further articulated by the proximity of three truncated
cowhide bodies kneeling in prayer, in the presence of a huge cowhide
uMcedo, a Swazi women’s fertility/pregnancy hut (Vundla, 2009: 2).
Animism, according to writer Tim Ingold, is an invitation, not to
a way of thought or discourse, but one of being alive to the world. It
requires sensitivity and responsiveness in our perceptions to the perme-
ability and change of everything around humanity (Ingold, 2013: 294). It
is also a re-membering of our inextricable interrelationship to the world
in all of her myriad occurrences, human and other-than-human. Thus,
the relationality of animism is not limited to the human being as a sepa-
rate form of existence. Mntambo’s imagery in my experience and un-
derstanding of the animist elements, walks these thresholds by creating
potent interspecies images and mythological personalities, which render
the unitary form of the masculine body and reality within the ux of the
Feminine Semiotic.
In a series of photographs and sculptures, Mntambo deantly con-
fronts us as a hybrid human-animal called Europa, who then also trans-
forms into the narcissist and rapist Zeus, immortalized in a confronta-
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Journal of Resistance Studies Number 2 - Volume 2 - 2016
tional bronze bust. These interspecies, multisexual representations are a
reworking of the ancient Greek myth of the abduction and rape of Eu-
ropa by Zeus. Mntambo merges her bare torso and head with the horns
of a bull, creating herself as a female minotaur, literally sculpting her
living esh into a powerful interspecies expression of ferocious feminine
presence. The trauma of sexual violence enacted on Europa by Zeus is
inverted into a highly reexive shift in their respective roles in this event.
Europa, from The Encounter Exhibition by Nandipha Mntambo, Michael
Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town 2008.
Mntambo creates an image of complex ambiguity, a third space in
which Mntambo holds both the gaze of desire and sexual aggression,
as well as the receptive body of victim and participant. In this semiotic
gesture, I interpret both the victim and the attacker within the image,
inviting the third space of the audience into a complex and intriguing
subversion of feminine vulnerability, weakness and sexual desire. In Mn-
tambo’s sculpture and multimedia work, I read a confrontation between
the visual and mythic borders of hegemony, of social order as well as the
body (as a microcosm of those ideologies). I also witness the ability of
sculptural form, traditionally perceived as a stationary creative process, to
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visually and metaphorically reveal new statuses of being in the artworks
where traditional representation is exceeded by living presence. Through
this, I interpret what animism offers explorations of sexual identity, in a
powerful evocation of the third, of the unspeci ed and unknown within
creative practice. My writing and reception of Mntambo’s creations in
this light seeks out the Feminine Semiotics held within the latent ani-
mism and exploration of presence in her work.
Jill Joubert’s Apple Girl
Seated Therianthrope, from Jill Joubert’s Apple Girl, Cape Town 2012
The Triptych, from Jill Joubert’s Apple Girl, Cape Town 2012.
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Journal of Resistance Studies Number 2 - Volume 2 - 2016
Jill Joubert is a contemporary South African puppeteer who has been
creating, exploring and performing with puppets since the 1980’s. She
was a founding member of the world-renowned Handspring Puppet
Company in the 1980’s and her solo contemporary puppetry work over
the past twenty years has been showcased on prestigious platforms such
as the Institute for Creative Arts live art platform Infecting the City. I would
like to offer my own creative interpretations of the Feminine Semiotics
at play in one of her most recent productions, Apple Girl (2012), created
for Joubert’s Master’s degree which was co-supervised between the sepa-
rate departments of sculpture (Fine Art) and theatre (Drama) at the Uni-
versity of Cape Town South Arica. Joubert writes in her Master’s Thesis
that an Italian fairy-tale of the same name inspired Apple Girl. The fairytale, she
describes, was taken specically from a feminine folk tradition, in which
oral tradition and storytelling was held not by men but by the grand-
mothers of the community (Joubert, 2012). Joubert describes Apple Girl
as a ritualized performance that enacts metamorphosis and transforma-
tion. The piece was created as a series of performed sculptural tableaux
that took the form of various mobile shrines, which she says functioned
as “mini puppet theatres” (Joubert, 2012: 6). These mobile shrine/pup-
pet theatres are moved by Joubert through the performance, shaping
the space until at the end of the performance they become a “constel-
lation of tableaux as an art work, xed as an arrangement of sculptures
to which the performance has given a framework for presentation and
interpretation” (2012: 6).
In informal discussions about the performance, Joubert described
to me how her own presence in Apple Girl is a performative interaction
with each shrine as a moment of ritual. I interpret Joubert’s performed
rituals as a series of specied, meaningful gestures that echo the fairytale
narrative and resonate within the imaginative and critical spaces of the
Feminine Semiotic. These spaces arise for me through Joubert’s use of
presence and symbolism. The ritual shrines in Joubert’s performance do
this by presenting what I interpret as spatial and metaphoric moments,
framed by multicultural symbolic forms in the narrative of the reworked
As described in her thesis, Joubert works very closely with Afri-
can mythologies (from which a vast amount of African ritual gurines
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are derived), feminine archetype and mythological iconographies in her
sculptural forms in Apple Girl. The threshold space that characterizes
the Feminine Semiotic emerges in my interpretation through the per-
sonal and political, sexual and spiritual landscapes that Joubert’s pup-
petry invokes in Apple Girl. I read the Feminine Semiotics of her work,
not only in the transformative symbolism of the story itself but in the
presence of the living sculptures that express what Joubert describes as
her “numinous appreciation of the material world, the objects of which
resonate with their many lives once lived” (Joubert, 2010: 8). The found
things, built from “scavenged” objects, combine and recombine to form
the bodies of the living sculpture. Joubert only uses found materials to
carve and create her puppets. As in many African puppetry, mask and
gurine traditions (Joubert, 2010) she carves and combines natural, im-
permanent materials such as bones, wood and shells. The cast-off frag-
ments gathered from various places, express for Joubert the nomadic
trajectories of time, place and memory in the historical residue of the
things themselves. Importantly, Joubert writes that the objects speak as
well to the passage of time in women’s sexual identity, most notably her
own rite of passage into menopause. In an interview, Joubert described
to me how she combines natural found objects such as wood and bone
with highly personal materials, such as her mother’s wedding dress, her
daughter’s childhood clothing, items associated with the trajectory of
her own sexual and feminine cycles of life, to create transculturally meta-
phoric puppet forms.
In one of Joubert’s tableau shrines, entitled The Boudoir of the Queen,
the central puppet on the altar is the gure of the infertile Queen, yearn-
ing for a child. The wooden Queen gure stands on an adapted bedside
table on wheels, with rolling pin handles (echoing cults of western femi-
nine domesticity). Deep red curtains, cut from the clothing of Joubert’s
own daughter’s childhood, surround the table. Joubert describes the
Queen as derived from women’s fertility and power icons of the snake
goddess of ancient Crete “with hair carved to resemble ery snakes,
youthful bare-breasts, small waist and ared skirt, evokes the snake-
goddess of Crete… When static, the queen’s arms are outstretched in
the gesture of grace synonymous with the Virgin Mary” (Joubert, 2010:
52). Thus, Joubert herself situates the puppet of the Queen within non-
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secular traditions that used religious icons (catholic) and fertility gurines
(prepatriarchal) in ritual and empowerment practices.
According to Vicki Noble, a women’s spirituality scholar, states that
“much of the earliest art appears to have been created by women in
ritual context” (Noble, 1991: 155). Noble’s research is highly inuenced
by the seminal work of Maria Gimbutas who wrote prolically on an-
cient feminine art and gurine traditions. Noble aligns women’s creative
and spiritual practices, which she relates to the sexual signicance of
the feminine biological fertility cycle. More than this, Noble connects
women’s gurine practices to sexual and creative empowerment (1991).
Joubert’s reection on fertility iconography through the carved gurine
can also be contextualized within South African fertility gurine tradi-
tions. In South Africa, fertility gures were designed to be moved, car-
ried, performed and used, rather than simply standing still on display.
The fertility doll also contained both male and female sexual forms in its
representation, in which
Embedded in its design… was a narrative of denial of masculinity. The
Doll offered women the opportunity to express, celebrate or teach an
autonomous concept of female identity and fertility… There is ample
evidence for women’s ideological opposition to the patriarchy. (De-
deren, 2010: 34)
The fertility gurine brings resistant and subversive practices into
women’s rites of passage and matrilineal inheritance. Dederen says that
many of the fertility “dolls” of these traditions may be seen to express
an autonomous feminine perspective of procreation, a feminized render-
ing of sexuality that served as “an alternative to the masculine vision of
sexual complementarity” (2010: 36).
Dederen writes a signicant feature is often the dual sexual nature
of the icons, which contain references to the sexual identity of both
men and women. Dederen looks at the latent feminine empowerment
oft-ignored in the Tsonga marriage gurine traditions in the Limpopo
province of South Africa. Many researchers simply dismiss their impor-
tance by attributing their purposes as reminders of the sanctity of mar-
riage to newlyweds and, by implication, the male privileging patriarchal
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systems surrounding them. But rather than the doll being referred to as
a child (n’wana) by women, it is also called xanga and tshutshu, words that
hold great signicance in women-led lineage traditions. The xanga gu-
rine arises in complex ways through the tshutshu practices, which situate
women as keepers of matrilineal descent and feminine ancestral mean-
ing. Held only by the female line, this living gurine offers signicance
for the maintenance of feminine power, education and representation
within Venda society.
As Dederen points out, the doll provides women with a powerful
tool to symbolically weaken the patriarchy of their society (2010). The
fertility gurine can be seen to hold a deeply resistant feminine presence,
subversive of patriarchal power, specically as it arises in personal prac-
tices and spaces. While this subversive potential may not have been ex-
plicitly revealed in public, in the secret and sacred traditions of feminine
initiations their use and perception was linked specically to the sexuality
and pride of the women.
In Apple Girl, the queen laments her inability to conceive in a public
way, but the presence of her own fertility and feminine power is held in
the symbols on her body as well as symbols present yet hidden from the
view of the audience. Joubert (2010: 51) describes the tableaux world, as
well as the gure of the Queen puppet, as lled with symbols of fertility,
expressing her yearning desire to bear a child:
As the boudoir of the queen is wheeled into the performance, Craw-
ford sings the queen’s lament, with words taken directly from Calvino,
punctuated by the puppet raising her arms in varied gestures of sup-
plication, epiphany and despair.
Oh! Oh! Oh!
Oh! Oh! Oh!
Oh! Oh! Oh!
Oh why can’t I bear children the same as the apple tree bears apples?
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Oh why can’t I bear children the same as the apple tree bears apples?
Oh! Oh! Oh!
Yet, Joubert describes how inside the closed drawer of the table on
which the queen stands, there are fertility symbols (spiral snakes, cosmic
eggs, and a labyrinth with a vulva), which she describes as “attached to
the little cupboard like a silent prayer” (Joubert, 2010: 51). The hidden
prayers within the shrine express a symbolism of feminine procreativity
in a secretive way, which echoes the ways in which fertility gures have
been and are used by women in their personal experiences of desire and
fertility as described by Dederen above. In my own creative reading of
the symbolism in Joubert’s piece, these hidden fertility symbols express
the sexual power and creative force of the queen, as she does in fact
manage to conceive a daughter, called Apple Girl. My interpretation
links the queen in Joubert’s performance to South African fertility doll
practices, specically through the intimate ways that the symbolism of
fertility and the fertility gures hold presence (visible and invisible) for
individuals. The personal intimacy of the fertility gure, which gathers
meaning and power in women’s secret spaces is a potential locus of its
resistance as a Feminine Semiotic.
In the ritual performance of Apple Girl, Joubert enters multiple
feminine imaginative and animist bodies and spaces. The evocations of
personal myth in the ritual objects she creates express transformative
rites of passage into and through womanhood, sexuality, and personal
metamorphosis that the story’s archetypes express. One of the most sig-
nicant of the ritual tableaux in Apple Girl is what Joubert calls The Altar,
a large constructed wooden box that houses three sculpted gures. The
gures combine and revise specically pre-patriarchal and pre-western
fertility and power icons such as the bisexual ancestral Khoi San therian-
thrope from South African rock art. The second sculpture references the
Venus of Willendorf (a fertility icon from prehistoric European art) built
out of tortoise bones. The third is based on the Senufo (Ivory Coast)
sculpture of Kono, the ancestral bird-woman made from pig’s scapulas.
These gures are present throughout the performance, overseeing the
unfolding events and witnessing them within the multisexual presence
of the sacred feminine.
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Joubert speaks of the therianthrope, a gender-ambiguous gure
derived from San rock paintings found in South Africa, which she says
An ancestral inter-connectedness between humans and animals… This
numinous gure is intended to be sexually ambiguous, representing the
enviable state of balance in which gender is no longer relevant: the
breasts and horns could be either male or female and the cowrie shell
suggests a navel or a vagina. (Joubert, 2012: 44)
This sexual ambiguity and bisexuality is seen in many other tra-
ditional South African fertility gurines, for example the Sotho Ngoa-
na Modula (child of grass) or the Ntwane fertility dolls called Gimwane,
where the gure has a phallic shape but is covered in the feminine tradi-
tions and symbolism of beadwork. These gender-ambiguous gurines,
far from making gender irrelevant, potentially derive from bilineal, pre-
patriarchal heritage in which shared power between sexes was expressed
through the sexual potency of these gures (2010: 27). Dederen goes so
far as to suggest that “the feminized phallic image would have redened
manhood as a mere tool for the realization of female identity”, the ul-
timate power of woman to hold the mysteries of life and procreation,
menstruation and death that is the complex process of feminine fertility
and lineage (2010: 36).
These meanings would also have taken their full signicance in
the actual performance of ritual, extending beyond the gure itself and
highlighting the acutely permeable surfaces of separation between self
and other. In the liminal states of women’s sacred performance, the gu-
rine is integral to ux, power, protection, embodiment, and spirit of the
rite of passage. As Dederen points out, the gurine would also have in-
novated and changed over the centuries, but always serving as reminder
and representation of the womb where “in the sphere of human procre-
ation, female sexual potency rules supreme” (2010: 37).
The triptych altar in Apple Girl is situated not only as a centerpiece
for reclamation of feminine power, but also operates as limen, a per-
meable symbolic entranceway between the shifting forces of sexuality,
power, spirit and material. Minh-ha declares that the artist’s job is to
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bring forward and open the realms of the visible and invisible (1987). It
is both the visibility and invisibility of what she terms the inappropriate
other that could pose a transformative strategy for representation. Here,
“one would have to break with such a system of dualities and show…
what constitutes invisibility itself as well as what exceeds mere visibility”
(Grzinic, 1998: 3). On Joubert’s performance altar, the therianthrope, the
ancestral bird woman, and the Venus inhabit a liminal space, that is they
are both in the world and between worlds, here and elsewhere simultane-
ously. Minh-ha uses the terms “elsewhere” and “within here”, align-
ing identity representation with the destabilization of time and space
(Grzinic, 1998: 3). The destabilization of time and space by the gender-
ambiguous gure of the therianthrope and the interspecies form of the
bird woman operate to question, to celebrate, and to corrode the xed-
ness of the subject in the here and now.
I read the Feminine Semiotics of animism in Joubert’s living sculp-
tures, as expressed in the melding points of form and construct, ritual
and performance, myth and metaphor, personal and political in her cre-
ative meaning making. It is these multiple layers that converge in the
“puppet” as what Joubert calls “performed sculpture” (2010: 27), that
render it an inappropriate other in my understanding. This permeable
and threshold place of the puppet, in my reading of it, both expresses
and confounds construct and being, visually and critically bridging the
inside and the outside, seen and unseen, the critical and the embodied.
The Feminine Semiotics of the inappropriate other arises in artistic prac-
tice in ways that, as Minh-ha declares, exceed the limits while working
within them (Grzinic, 1998). The emergent third space of animist pres-
ence at the heart of women’s puppetry works in complex ways, which, as
I have explored, to quote Minh-ha, are “simultaneous and always inex-
haustive” (Grzinic, 1998). This borderline, in-between space of animism
is what Sara Motta describes as the state of potential and possibility that
is alive in the feminizing of resistance through creative practice (2014).
Motta locates this in the gure of the storyteller. She writes,
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The storyteller dwells out of choice in the margins when as a self that is
oppressed, she makes a choice at the crossroads of these two states and
ethically commits to politicize this in-betweenness… The storyteller
thus does not seek aesthetic, epistemological, and cultural separation
from, or control over, the popular. The storyteller imbues the embod-
ied experiences of oppressions with epistemic power… She commits
to practices that decenter dominant literacies by reclaiming, recovering,
and reinventing the knowledges of the body, heart, and land. (Motta,
2014: 12)
The interstitial space of the storyteller/artist that Motta describes
exists specically in her co-creative, communal re-imagining of being
and that is deeply imbricated in, rather than separated from, the em-
bodied personal and collective experience of “history, spatiality, cosmol-
ogy, culture, and social relations” (Motta, 2014: 12). The storyteller co-
constructs meaning through collective re-weaving that breaks down the
boundaries of her own narrow identications with self as well as the
monolithic, self/other epistemologies of hegemony. In women’s con-
temporary resistance practices, puppetry proffers an entry point to a co-
constructive strategy of creativity that is located in a deeply feminine
multigeneity of being.
Animism expresses the syncretic, multidisciplinary and energetic
potential of radical cultural and representational practice. Conuences
of ritualized liminality, syncretism and experiential slippage through
embodiment, exist at the heart of women’s puppetry performance con-
cerned with animism. These expressions are key to the feminized resis-
tance of this inappropriate other of creative practice in South Africa as
well as elsewhere in the world. What this ever-evolving art form offers
the landscape of radical as well as materialist subaltern feminist enquiry
is an artistic strategy of spiritual and sexual resistance to western patriar-
chal oppression. What I hope this exploration of the feminine semiotics
of animism has begun to reveal, is how the intimately feminine creative
impulse expressed through puppetry may be linked to the feminization
of resistance and emergent processes of being in the threshold spaces
of the subaltern.
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Journal of Resistance Studies Number 2 - Volume 2 - 2016
I am aware, as a South African artist, of the stigmatization and in-
visibility of women’s puppetry, not only in our own country, but in how
this perception is echoed in global performance practices (Obraztsov,
1967). This particular stigma has, to a large extent, excluded puppetry by
shaming it as women’s practice directed at the immature and excluding
it from high art discourses. Part of this is due to the occidental assump-
tion that the roots of modern puppetry practice aimed at adults and a
critical audience, stem from masculine modernist and postmodern tradi-
tions. Focus is primarily afforded to the intersecting patriarchal traditions
of European, Mediterranean and Asian intercultural exchanges. There
is little or no critical awareness of how these traditions arose histori-
cally in colonial and patriarchal imperatives that marginalized the femi-
nine. Much of European puppet-object theorizing has sought critical
substantiation, integrating the modus operandi of the puppet within the
agency of the object in a specically modernist discourse. This fearful
de-feminizing and de-sexualizing of the energetic and sentient roots of
puppetry in critical discourse, has done much to limit critical expression
of the subversive, phenomenological heart of the practice and what this
means for sexual and spiritual resistance. Yet it is the radical feminine at
the heart of puppetry that offers so many of the discursive strategies
for resistance that emerge in its contemporary performance applications.
The radical syncretism of the feminine resides in its liminality, at
the threshold of form and sprit, sentience and construction, being and
desire. The Feminine Semiotics of contemporary animism express sexu-
al and spiritual emergence (as a process of ecstatic becoming, rising up)
and emergency (as a call to address the ravages of patriarchal cultural
and political domination) through complex representation of the per-
meability of being. This threshold space of ux and intersection heralds
the imminent challenge of the inappropriate third to multiple sites of
oppression and containment that operate to denounce the truly resis-
tant practices of feminine creativity. Yet, in the intimate, often personal
spaces of dolls, ritual, living sculpture, presence, symbol, slippage and
embodiment that form aspects of women’s puppetry practices today, we
may nd expression that provides a feminized strategy for r-evolutionary
creative practices.
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In the following paper, through the analysis of the Belgian performance L’Herbe de l’oubli, I examine how the elements of the theatre of figures (such as the manipulation of puppets) could respond to the challenges of documentary theatre. The performance of Point Zéro company (written and directed by Jean-Michel d’Hoop, premiered in 2018) discusses some elemental ethical and political questions about the use of nuclear power. It introduces the audience to the everyday life of families living in the extended zone of Chernobyl. The piece combines videography, puppets, and interview-fragments of the habitants from the contaminated areas. One of my goals is to raise attention to a production I find extremely important and to promote a theatrical genre, the intertwined figure-documentary theatre, that has endless possibilities and is not yet represented in Hungary.
Full-text available
Different terms can be use for puppet theatre: figure theatre, object theatre and animation theatre. Contemporary performances including puppets are nowadays often referred to as multimedia performances, crossover theatre and visual theatre. Some artists avoid the word “puppet” because of negative associations: close association with children and low status amongst the arts. Professional puppetry in many Western countries has evolved into a wide-ranging theatre form. Puppets traditionally used to be seen in isolation in performance and a distinct line could be drawn between puppet theatre and other forms of theatre, but the bonding with other art forms has diminished this segregation. As an artistic label, “puppet theatre” is perhaps not always appropriate as it does not acknowledge the artistic scope and complexity of an art work in which multiple visual and acoustic elements are applied, and this bonding raises questions about genre as a classification system.
While we may understand animism largely within the contexts of non-modern, indigenous cultures, and think of ourselves as hopelessly alienated from animist sensibilities, we have, in fact, never left our animist worldview. Animism is not some atavistic impulse, but is, rather, the process of activating personness within the world—a personness that includes both humans and other-than-humans. Animism is actualizing this incipient, virtual, personness of the world through self-aware performance.