Living objects (sculptural figures animated in live performance) played an integral role in African communal rituals, but slaveholders prohibited the enslaved from creating figures they viewed as “heathen idols.” As a result, stereotypical caricatures such as minstrel puppets rather than figurative representations created by African Americans themselves came to represent blackness in American object performance traditions. Still, a few pioneering African American ventriloquists were able to throw their voices in ways that challenged these stereotypes and African American puppeteers associated with the Federal Theater Project in the 1930s paved the way for African Americans to reclaim object performance as a mode of expression.
Puppetry in the Community
Object performance in traditional African societies tended to serve community building and spiritual functions. Today, carnival masqueraders, educators, and performers engaged in puppet ministry all animate living objects in ways that are similar to these traditional functions in Africa.
Puppetry as Visual Art
Artists who animate an African American visual aesthetic through work that presents images of African American experience (whether realistically or symbolically represented). This work appears in gallery shows, museum exhibits and installations and as performance art outside of theatrical venues.
Puppetry in Storytelling
Very little of the material culture associated with African performing object traditions survived in the Americas. African instruments and African-style figurative sculpture were prohibited in the United States but performance contexts associated with storytelling and object performance did survive. African Americans also learned to perform within the conventions of western-style theater. Today African American puppeteers present stories across a wide range of performance styles.
Puppetry as Craftsmanship
The design and construction of puppets not only draws on all the visual arts, it may also encompass innovative use of materials and engineering techniques. African American artists exhibit excellence in the design and conception of puppet characters, costume design and other fiber arts techniques as well as woodworking, metalworking and sophisticated control mechanisms.