London Art Reviews

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Lovely Southeast Asian shadow puppet theatre exhibition at The British Museum, London.

Ogre, Kelantan, Malaysia; hide, wood; mid-20th century© The Trustees of the British Museum

Ogre, Kelantan, Malaysia; hide, wood; mid-20th century© The Trustees of the British Museum

London – It has been an interesting exhibition “Shadow puppet theatre from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand” at The British Museum. This exhibition has drawn on the British Museum’s unique Southeast Asian shadow puppet collection, unique in London and the world. The shadow theater is an ancient form of folk show. It is made by projecting of two -dimensional, hide puppets figures on a matte screen, semi-transparent, illuminated rear to create the illusion of moving images. The puppeteer simultaneously conducts the orchestra.

This form of entertainment is common in many cultures. In present days, shadow puppet companies works in over 20 countries in South Asia, and also in the rest of the world. Shadow puppet is an important religious, social, political and artistic medium in South Asia.

Shows are usually commissioned and performed at major life events, such as weddings or funerals, in celebration of the harvest, and in fulfillment of vows, but they have also been commercialised as entertainment in some areas. Therefore, in present days shadow puppet imagery and stories are used in other context, for example, in paintings, sculpture, comic books, and even videogames.

Puppeteers can have 200 or more puppets in their collections. Some of these puppets are not specific, while others symbolise particular characters. A few are considered to be sacred, such as the clowns and the holy man figure, and they are used in rituals or for divination and people wear protective medallions with it.

The figures are made especially for animal skin, primarily buffalo or cow, but also bear and deer. Since last century, puppet makers are also using plastic sheeting. Any fur is removed once the skin has been cleaned, stretched, and dried. A puppet figure is outlined and then the hide is cut and punched. Then after, they figure is painted and fitted with rods or chopsticks.

The shadow puppet theatre is very popular even nowadays. The shows are presented during ceremonies in sacred temples, functions in private and in public places in villages. A show can last all night, sometimes until dawn. They normally are in temporary stages in villages and pavilions in royal palaces. The stage has a screen of stretched white cloth. It has a lamp on the top a banana tree logs at the base. Spectators come and go all night and can watch from both side of the screen.

The stories of the shadow puppet theatre use sources from mythological and moral tales, which often represent the battle between good and evil. The narrative is composed with many different kinds of stories, including the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics that originated in India but were reinterpreted in Southeast Asia. There is also a specifically Southeast Asian narrative cycle based on the adventures of the legendary Prince Panji. Puppeteers have realised new stories that develop earlier narratives and explore the ups and downs of modern life, with new characters such as bandits, military figures, bureaucrats, airplanes, and mobile phones, are now also features in shadow theatre.

This British Museum exhibition presented Javanese puppets of the Raffles collection from circa 1800 (the earliest systematic collection of puppets in the world), puppets from Kelantan, Malaysia made by the puppeteers Pak Hamzah and Pak Awang Lah in the mid-twentieth century, Balinese puppets gifted to Queen Elizabeth II, and a set of modern Thai shadow puppets from the 1960s and 70s that display contemporary fashions and aspects of global pop culture. These puppets provide examples of local inspiration. Using comparative displays, the exhibition in London explored the relationships between these traditions, and also examined the stories, characters, and performance styles found in the region. Shadow theatre’s fame and spiritual associations in Southeast Asia have resulted in the reuse of shadow puppet imagery in other media, such as sacred manuscripts and protective charms.

There was an interesting and exhaustive 4’ minutes video installation. Divided in four main parts, it screened performances coming from Malaysia, Indonesia (Java and Bali) and Thailand.

The exhibition at the British Museum, London, further demonstrated that shadow puppet theatre is a living art form that still is relevant in contemporary times. Aspects of 20th century life, such as flare trousers, plastic, electricity, and sound amplification, play a part in shadow theatre, demonstrating its capacity to adjust to social change. Mass media has made some puppeteers into local celebrities, and the internet is sometimes used to broadcast performances. Earlier this year, wayang hip hop puppets representing the sons of the main Javanese clown figures were purchased and are on display in this exhibition for the first time. The museum’s collection is expanding to record these changes.

The exhibition has been curated by Alexandra Green, from The British Museum, London.

The South Asian exhibition “Shadow puppet theatre from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand” was at The British Museum, London, from 8th September 2016 until 29th January 2017.

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This entry was posted on July 19, 2018 by in Museums, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , .


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