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One of the most regular sights at the Johannesburg International Airport departure lounge is a tourist battling to manage both their luggage and a carved wooden giraffe of their own height. The fascination with this African creature is nothing new. For centuries it has been considered so exotic that on occasion it was sent as a diplomatic gift to countries on other continents.

The Handspring Puppet Company’s main puppet, from the production Tall Horse. Measuring five-metres in height, it is made from carbon rods and kite material. Photo: Geoffrey Grundlingh

One such giraffe, sent in 1829 from the Sultan of Egypt to the King of France, is the inspiration for a new production, called Tall Horse, by the Cape Town-based Handspring Puppet Company. The giraffe was captured young, sent up the Nile and across the Mediterranean by boat, and then marched across France to Paris. Its journey inspired a frenzy of scientific and cultural interest.

According to Handspring’s master puppeteer Adrian Kohler, the giraffe was a hit. Says Kohler: “It became like a pop star and people turned out in their thousands to see it. Even fashion changed to tall hair and heels, and songs were written about it … It opened up minds towards a different kind of Africa that was wonderful and beautiful.”

When Tall Horse makes its debut at the Baxter Theatre in September, the five-metre high giraffe is once again set to steal the show. Made of kite material and carbon fibre rods, its head went through three incarnations until it was light enough to be supported by the elongated neck. Two puppeteers on stilts manipulate the giraffe from within, moving its head, ears and tail.

The giraffe shares the stage with about 60 other puppets, four actors and eight puppeteers from South Africa and Mali. New York-based Khephra Burns wrote the script, which tells the story through giraffe handler, Atir. It unfolds in the storage room of a West African museum where the puppets come to life off the shelves.

A unique musical score, created by Warrick Sony and Murray Anderson, evokes the spirit of invention and discovery that gripped Europe during the mid-nineteenth century.

Puppetry is indeed a collaborative business and Handspring has earned international acclaim working with William Kentridge on productions like Ubu and the Truth Commission and Faustus in Africa. This time, the cast and production team spanned two continents with experts from the US, Benin, Mali and South Africa.

For Kohler, Tall Horse is the culmination of five years of hard work that he describes as “a rollercoaster ride” and the biggest project Handspring has undertaken. This time, he is working closely with Yaya Coulibaly and his Mali-based Sogolon Puppet Troupe. Their collaboration meant integrating two very different puppet styles: the folk style of Handspring and Sogolon’s ancient Bambarra tradition. Instead of attempting to merge styles with very different methods of construction and manipulation, Tall Horse celebrates both.

The result is a production that includes Bambarra’s inhabited puppets, which incorporate the puppeteer in the costumes, Bambarra’s mobile puppet stage, which hides the puppeteer as he enters the performance, with puppets from Handspring, noted for their expressive features.

The logistics behind presenting this show offered many challenges, but Tall Horse marks a satisfying conclusion to a spark of inspiration lit 25 years ago. Kohler’s curiosity was awakened when spotted his first Mali puppet in a store on Jeppe Street, in Johannesburg. A series of further coincidences serendipitously led Kohler and his partner Basil Jones to a creative liaison with Coulibaly’s Troupe.

Says Kohler: “I never wanted to let go of the chance to work with the Mali puppeteers. We struggle in each other’s languages but it’s incredible to sense how similar the things are that we do, although we come from opposite ends of the world. It’s a dream come true.”Kim Gurney is a freelance journalist and Western Cape Editor of ArtThrobTall Horse is sponsored by AngloGold Ashanti. It opens at the Baxter on September 10, Pretoria’s State Theatre on September 22 and Johannesburg’s Dance Factory on October 6

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