Tag Archives: African

Yoruban Sword

I made this decorative Yoruban sword back in 2004, when I was attending Ohio University and had a lot more beard.

Yoruban sword from "The Gods are Not to Blame"
Yoruban sword from "The Gods are Not to Blame"

The show was called “The Gods are Not to Blame”, and it is a Yoruban retelling of the Oedipus Rex tale from Ancient Greece (the Yoruba people are one of the largest ethnic groups in Western Africa, with a cultural history of hundreds, if not thousands, of years). My future wife was the set designer on this show, and nearly all the props had to be constructed to be completely authentic; her design involved extensive research into Yoruban artifacts, furniture, and design.

This sword, while appearing like a tradition sword, was built using very modern methods. It’s actually a fairly simple construction, although it has a few hidden tricks. I carved the handle from a piece of poplar, while the blade is taken from a sheet of steel plate. I traced the shape onto the steel and used a plasma cutter to cut it out. I also cut the cross shape out with the plasma.

Pieces of the sword
Pieces of the sword

Now for the hidden fun part. I took a steel rod and sharpened one end to a point. On the end of the tang of the blade, I notched a “V” shape. This is where the sharpened end of the rod went, and I welded the two pieces together; the reason for the sharpening and the notching was to give me a lot of surface area to attach my welds to.

I then had to drill a hole all the way through my carved figurine for the rod to slide into. I needed an extra-long drill bit for this part. I also notched the bottom for the tang to slide into. It was like cutting a mortise for a metal tenon. This step was necessary to keep the handle from spinning around the rod.

I threaded the end of the rod which was sticking out of the top of the figurines head, and tightened a nut down; this is how the handle remained attached to the blade. For one final little touch, I drilled out the top of the head so the nut could fit down inside, and then filled the whole thing over with some Bondo auto-body filler. The nut was now hidden within the top of the handle–with the unfortunate side effect that the handle was now permanently attached. Since this was a decorative sword and not a stage combat weapon (the blade was mild steel, and not to0l-hardened like a weapon’s blade), it would hopefully not need routine maintenance and tightening.

A collection of Yoruban swords
A collection of Yoruban swords

I traced the designs onto the blade from my full-scale drawing and engraved them with a Dremel tool. For my final step, I stained and sealed the handle.

Clean Shaven EricIt was a very hefty sword and a lot of fun to swing around. One day, I wasn’t paying attention while swinging it around, and I accidentally cut all my facial hair off. And that, my friends, is the secret origin of “Clean-Shaven Eric”.

War Horse

War Horse is currently playing in London’s West End, and is tentatively scheduled to open in New York in 2011. In “Making Horses Gallop and Audiences Cry“, Patrick Healy gives more in-depth information about the show and the amazing puppets, designed by Adrian Kohler:

The basic construction material for the horses is cane, which Mr. Kohler soaked to make it more moldable. “It is light, flexible, and the figure increases in strength as more and more struts are bound together,” he said. The struts create the look of joints in the horses’ legs and necks.

Silk patches were then applied to gauze to suggest the animals’ skin patterns and also partly to conceal the two puppeteers inside each adult horse.

The article also has a great number of photographs showing the puppets.

The puppets were constructed by the Handspring Puppet Company, a South African puppet group. It was founded in 1981 by Basil Jones and Mr. Kohler. On the website, they give a little more information about the horse puppets:

Some of the horses are fully articulated with two interior and one exterior manipulator and because they have aluminium spinal structures, they can carry human riders. Other horses are more abstract with no legs and only one manipulator.

The Giraffe puppet from Tall Horse, made by Handspring Puppet Company
The Giraffe puppet from Tall Horse, made by Handspring Puppet Company

The horses are based on the designs first used in Handspring’s production of Tall Horse, about a giraffe. Elsewhere on their website, they describe this puppet:

The puppet was constructed from a frame of carbon fibre rods and takes two puppeteers, on stilts, to operate it. The puppet is fully mechanical – its head, ears and tail can be manipulated by the puppeteers, through a complex system that allows the puppeteers, inside the body frame of the giraffe, to manipulate the appendages through bicycle brake cables.

The giraffe can turn its head, flap its ears and tail and walk with the swaying, graceful gait that anyone who has enjoyed the sight of the magnificent creature in the wild will recognise. Manned by two puppeteers on stilts, the giraffe is the central character of Tall Horse, which is a magical tale of the discovery of Europe by Africans.

If you are interested in learning more, Handspring has a few books out. Journey of the Tall Horse: A Story of African Theatre describes the production process for Tall Horse, while The Horse’s Mouth: Staging Morpurgo’s War House gives an in-depth look at the current production of War Horse. Until then, I’m looking forward to 2011!