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Asian Theatre Journal 22.1 (2005) 164-168

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Divinities, Demons, Kings and Clowns: Puppetry of India and Southeast Asia. Curated by Kathy Foley with the assistance of Michael Schuster. University Art Gallery of the University of Pittsburgh, 13 February-27 March 2004

Divinities, Demons, Kings and Clowns: Puppetry of India and Southeast Asia, an extensive exhibition presented at the University Art Gallery of the University of Pittsburgh in February and March 2004, featured puppets and related objects from traditions as diverse as Vietnamese water puppetry, Indonesian wayang (Fig. 1), and Burmese yokthe thay string marionettes. Grouped geographically and displayed in an intimate manner that allowed for close examination, the exhibit was curated by Kathy Foley of the University of California-Santa Cruz with the assistance of Michael Schuster. The exhibit redressed the lack of information on South and Southeast Asian puppet forms that remain little known outside their region, unlike the puppet traditions of Japan and China, which are better recognized abroad.

Highlights of the exhibit included a shadow puppet from Cambodia (a country where the tradition has been struggling to reestablish itself after virtual extinction under the Pol Pot regime) and Thai hun krabok rod puppets, exquisite in their detail and gilded splendor. Several Indonesian kayon "tree of life" shadow figures, juxtaposed with a remarkable Balinese Graveyard Tree, represented different aspects of wayang cosmology. Key figures from localized variations of the Ramayana epic clearly showed how each culture uses performing objects to recontextualize epic texts for their own usage. [End Page 164]

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Figure 1
The god Bayu, who rules the wind, was part of a display representing the gods who rule the directions. The figures in wayang golek style are from the studio of Asep Sunandar Sunarya in Jelekong, West Java. (Photo: Bradford Clark)

A rice planter, a fisherman, a water buffalo, and a flute-playing boy illustrated the role of the Vietnamese mua noi nuoc water puppet tradition in documenting aspects of village life. Other exquisitely lacquered and gilded figures, including animal figures such as dragons and serpents, complemented such representations of daily life with those of myth and legend (Fig. 2). These performing objects, unlike many of the smaller items routinely brought home by tourists, displayed the characteristic signs that come from [End Page 165] many years of use. Patterns of wear and tear provide information vital to our understanding of how puppets are manipulated in performance. The history contained in these worn figures enriches our understanding and appreciation of them.

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Figure 2
The lion (lan) is one of the four sacred animals in Vietnamese water puppet performance. (Photo: Bradford Clark)

Dalangand puppet carver Otong Rasta, one of the very few masters of the Islamic wayang cepak form of Sundanese wayang golek on the island of Java, created rod figures of Amir Hamzah, the uncle of Mohammed, and other figures from this tale of the triumph of Islam. As these figures are not nearly as well known as the Mahabharata characters of the wayang golek purwa (also represented in the exhibit), their inclusion offered a glimpse of a rarely observed genre.

Otong Rasta also provided interpretations of Indian gombeyata string puppets. I found their inclusion surprising, as geographically native artists created the other puppets in the exhibit. However, the aesthetically delightful pieces functioned both as teaching tools and as illustrations of how contemporary artists use the skills and aesthetics of their cultures to create new works influenced by others. While perhaps inconvenient for purists who seek to limit non-Western theatre forms to isolated lines of development, it is important to recognize that many contemporary artists and craftspeople, including practitioners of traditional arts, seek to explore the world beyond [End Page 166] their immediate experience. Today's carvers both follow their own interests and cater to the demands of the market. My own living room proudly features a northwest coast Haida mask carved in Bali.

Foley provided an authoritative and detailed wall text. She clearly placed each object in its specific regional and cultural context...