Nigerian Ibibio Puppets

Social sculptures from South Eastern Nigeria

This is a Yorkshire World Collections object, one of 100 chosen by young people aged 16-24, as part of the London Cultural Olympiad programme Stories of the World.

African Ibibio puppets from South Eastern Nigeria such as these were used in non religious plays by the men's Ekon Society group. They were used to entertain through humour, but often were about serious themes intended to bring about social change.

The puppets were made of wood and usually only the limbs or lower jaw moved. The plays were dedicated to 'ancestral' spirits and looked at society, religion and politics. They were intended to be a way to create democratic change. The identity of a puppeteer was allowed to be secret so that they were protected and free to make fun of, or 'satirise', village life and important members of the community. 

The figures pictured above probably represent a warrior and a missionary. Sometimes these puppets are described as 'social sculptures'. The colours of the puppets helped to explain roles. Here they are white and yellow, which represented positive qualities for the Ekon Society. These Nsibidi symbols (see above) are used by the Ibibio, like letters of our alphabet.

Discussion ideas:

  • These kinds of puppets were used in plays to portray different aspects of life. What methods do we use today to do this?
  • What do you understand by the words 'democratic change'?
  • How do we try to make sure our own society and communities today are democratic? 
  • What examples can you think of, both in the past and today, where colours have a special symbolic meaning?
  • Look at this image of the sculpture 'Alison Lapper Pregnant' then talk about whether it could be described as a 'social sculpture' for us today?
  • If you had a theatre group who would you 'satirise' and why?
  • Search for 'satire' or 'cartoon' on this website and look for other attempts at social reform through humour.

Young person's response to this object:

'Simple yet very important. These puppets, central to the Ekon people’s culture, system and society symbolise their significance and crucial role in the lives of these people', Jordon Keighley.

Map of South Eastern Nigeria where the Ibibio people come from»

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