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Aja Marneweck is Senior Lecturer and Head of the Laboratory of Kinetic Objects (LoKO) at the Center for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape (South Africa).
Her research work involves the multimodal creative and discursive discipline of puppets as a transformative agent of social, spiritual and cultural practices.

Holder of the first South African Doctorate in Practice as Research in Puppetry Performance entitled Towards a Feminine Semiotic: Spiritual and Sexual Emergency in Women's Puppetry and Visual Performance

She is Creative Director of The Paper Body Collective Female Animism and Puppet Company.
Since 2014 she has been Creative Director of the Giant Puppet Parade , a large-scale interdisciplinary collaboration of public puppet arts (created in 2010 in collaboration between the CHR at UWC, Net vir Pret , and the Handspring Puppet Trust), which takes place annually in Barrydale, in the Klein Karoo province.
It is a unique collaboration that allows rural and urban audiences and artists to use puppets to engage complex issues of history, heritage, land, creativity, identity, power, rights and ecology.


Thinking about water and what it represents to me, I realized that it has inspired and been part of almost every creative project of mine over the past twenty-two years.

Water for me is much more than a simple representation: it is a way of being, it is a structure, it is a living element, water is a presence that is part of my life as an artist here in South Africa.

I was born near the ocean, I spend a lot of time in the water, water is very present in my daily spiritual and artistic practices, water also speaks to my way of working as an artist. 

When I think back to all my work, I observe how it is always collaborative, I very rarely work alone on a project: the sense of collaboration between multiple bodies is a very fluid thing for me, which makes me think about the bodies of water in our world, to the fluidity of the accumulation of streams, of rivers flowing and arriving in the ocean, to that sense of multiple streams that flow into an unknown source, in a very creative melting pot: this is really the way I work with many artists that join me. 

Water for me is a deep dive in different aspects.

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Photo by Aja Marneweck - Swim,  2008

My love and passion for water extends from its elemental form as well as into the touch and sensations that its different states cause.

The way I work with the Paper Body Collective, as a puppeteer, is always with multiple forms: we work with multimedia and very often I have found that the water aspect of my work is captured through video, a chance to actually go in the water to immerse yourself, to enter emotional landscapes.

The video gives me the opportunity to bring out the uninhabitable part of the water, the plot, the field, immersing it in the theatrical space, in a space that seems not intended for water, a space that seems to have no evident fluidity.
Water for me is fluidity of being, fluidity of identity, fluidity and deep immersion in emotion. 

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Photo of Aja Marneweck - Maladamatjuate,  2004

In 2003 and 2004 I created a show called Maladamatjuate with the Paper Body Collective, the informal group of artists I have worked with in many productions, and we created this show using puppetry and multimedia video.

The show was about the water god icon called Mami Wata .

Water deities are found throughout the African continent, in many of the continent's different religions there are spiritual practices, Mami Wata is found from Benin and Togo to Zambia and South Africa.

It is a really powerful story that shows us how the images of the water spirits have moved across the continent, but also how they take shape in the form of sculptures, statuettes, puppets depicting mother water as a woman, a mermaid but with snakes around her neck.

We explored this iconography, the image of the snake charmer similar to Mami Wata, and the connections between the different ways, the different migrations of the imaginary and the meaning of Mami Wata through different countries and through different times and places. 

We created a show that explored spiritual mythology and also the historiography of mother water, involving multiple ocean landscapes.

Mami Wata is a mermaid who is believed to hail from across the ocean and is revered by the ocean, so the ocean was very much present in the imagery and meaning of the show.

It was also a travel story, water for me was about traveling across oceans, how water allows us to move between space and time. 

And not just space and time in its literal sense: water illuminates everything, it allows us to move to enter deeply with rains that blast the boundaries between the conscious mind and the unconscious, the subconscious.

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Photo of Don Cole, Mami Wata, circa 1987, by Zoumana Sane. Pigment, glass. Collection of Herbert M. and Shelley Cole

Very often for me and for my shows, water is therefore an element of inspiration, which allows me to work with the puppets, not only with the puppet that speaks to our awake mind, but with the part of the puppet that speaks to ours. dreaming mind.

So in many of my shows and in my puppet work, water is the element of dreams: the element of the dream landscape, of moving spaces and of dreams and subconscious spaces, and to me these subconscious spaces are deeply rooted in the feminine, in a very libidinal and liminal and revolutionary femininity, a femininity that is about fluidity, a femininity that is not about gender, but about desire, sexuality, objection, powers, flow, fluidity and cycles.

Very often the images I explore are linked to water and femininity, water and the female body, the body of water as related to the female body, very often I also work with the image of the moon: in a show we had a old grandmother's puppet walking in front of a projection of a moon, then that moon returned in many shows that followed, and one of the last was Plot 99, where we explored the relationship between water and local spirituality in South Africa, the bond that South Africans have in many indigenous mythologies, such as that of the Zulus, where the mythology of water is present in the cult of the ancestors.

The show Plot 99 explored the aspects of water connected to the revolutionary female body, which emerges, through puppets and multimedia, in connection with the body of water.

Water is believed to be the home of the ancestors.

The house of the water spirit mandala is also the ancestral home in South Africa and this is found in many African traditions, the sisters are believed to dwell under the river, inside the ocean and so aspects of that show have been following the river and explore that deep connection through the filmed video, and then combine it with the mask and puppet work, to explore the performer's body in relation to the video.

So, the videos gave me a lot of space to create layered visual landscapes, to allow us to enter bodies of water, not only as a representation, but as a living body, water as a living space. 

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Video frame taken from Plot99 water video sequences 2011 - By Aja Marneweck

This theme is also present in my work with community puppetry on a large scale.

I have been involved through the Center for Humanities Research and its Puppet Theater platform which is the laboratory of kinetic objects, for over a decade in a project in a small town called Barrydale in the Klein Karoo province of South Africa.

One of the main themes that we have developed in a creation of 2018, and which is still continuing, because we are bringing those puppets to life again this year, is our deep concern for water conservation: it is a very real problem that of drought in South Africa, we have more than once faced the real threat of “day zero”, the day when water resources will be completely depleted.

Living in a country where we have water scarcity and really understanding what it means to consider water as a sacred and precious resource brings new meaning to our appreciation of water.

We created a show called River and Redfin where, we gave birth to a giant puppet of the spirit of the Barrydale River and also brought to life, in the form of giant puppets, the Redfin fish, which is a small fish, a tiny fish, which is found only in the Berrydale area and which is on the verge of extinction.

It is a freshwater fish for which the community of this small town feels great pain, because it has been an important part of local life and has both represented local knowledge.

So, with the show, we created a giant Redfin fish, to express an urgent awareness.

In River and Redfin we represented the feeling of separation and pain within the community.

Berrydale, like many small towns in South Africa, still maintains aspects of the apartheid legacy of the separation between whites and blacks, between classes, between groups of racial identities, it is still haunted by divisions.

Poverty on one black side of the city, wealth on the other white side of the city: the river is where the dividing line is drawn.

The show explored the river not only as a river, but as a metaphor, a symbol of unity and celebration of a nature that we must support by taking care of the river.

But the river is also a fracturing point: many non-white, multiracial communities lived together on the river, the same that later became the dividing line that apartheid used to remove black families from the river's banks, allowing only white settlers and landlords to own land on the river.

The show project was therefore also a political work, a performance on who has the right to own the river, on who can say that the river is his property.

The river belongs to itself, it belongs to nature, and yet much of it has limited access due to political interference that dictates who has the right to access it.

The show has become a social laboratory on access to water as a fundamental human right from which the assumption of responsibility for conservation derives.

When we are separated from water we are unable to take the necessary responsibility for water.
Water and the responsibility to take care of our rivers belongs to every human being.

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River and Redfin, Barrydale Giant Puppet Parade, 2018

It is an honor for me, as we talk and think about puppets and water and the power of water, to remember my colleague Shane A. Petzer, who sadly passed away suddenly last year in 2021. 

Shane worked with us on the creation of Riven Redfin, with the non-profit organization Net Vir Pret. 

Shane has been the director of Net Vir Pret for many years and has worked tirelessly with this organization which has collaborated with us in puppet productions for more than 10 years. 

Shane was the founder of the Magpie Art Collective, based in Barrydale. 

Shane was the heart of the founding group of the Berrydale Giant Puppet Parade through the part of the project which was the lighting of a magnificent Christmas tree each year, a tree created as a sculptural installation by reworking scraps and recycled objects into magnificent pieces of art. 

So it's an honor to remember Shane and the work we've done together, remembering Riven Redfin and our many years together on the Berrydale Giant Puppet Parade with Net Vir Pret and the Center for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.


Shane A. Petzer, social justice activist and artist has left a void throughout the Barrydale community.

In 1998 he founded, together with Scott Hart, the Magpie Art Collective association, engaged in numerous arts and education initiatives in the Karoo town of Barrydale with partners Net Vir Pret and Handspring Puppet Company.

In the 90s he founded the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce, a movement to defend the rights of sex workers to legitimize the profession, a reference point for this community in South Africa.

In his artistic career he has explored the sense of ethics in aesthetics, through numerous ecological projects of reuse of materials in connection with a practice based on the benefits of doing through manual manipulation, transmitting a philosophy of life and artistic practice.

Laughter was at the center of his being.

SHANE A. PETZER  in memory


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