Puppet Masquerades in the Valley of the Niger

by Mary Jo Arnoldi
National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

Bafing Kane, a blacksmith-sculptor, at work in his atelier. Segou Region, Mali, 1987. Photo by Mary Jo Arnoldi.


Bamana blacksmiths, like Bafing Kane, carve most of the wooden masks and puppets used in both the farmer's and fishermen's theater. Mr. Kane, who was in his sixties when I interviewed him in 1987, began carving when he was in his teens. He studied for many years with his uncle Siriman Fane, who was one of the most renowned carvers in this region. In his youth Mr. Kane often traveled throughout the Segou region carving masks and puppets for various troupes and, like his uncle, he has gained a reputation as a skilled carver. Today, troupes come to his home in order to order their masks and puppets.  When I visited him in 1987 he was working on a commission for a neighboring community. He had just finished carving and assembling a puppet that represented a colonial officer on horseback and was just beginning to work on a second puppet.