Cultural activist’s series of wayang kulit photographs seeks to reinvigorate curiosity for the dying art form.
NO one knows about its origins. None know where and when it all began. Its earliest emergence, at least in this part of the world, dates back nearly a thousand years. Some say it had its roots in ancient China and India. But one fact remains as incontrovertible as the setting of the sun. When it comes to the realm of the traditional, the wayang kulit (shadow puppet) is the most recognised in the South-East Asian region, even claiming the status of a cultural icon.
As one of Malaysia’s most treasured historic and cultural possessions, it has been a struggle to keep the wayang kulit tradition alive in these modern times.
One such keeper of the traditional art is Pusaka, founded by cultural activist Eddin Khoo 12 years go. For a whole month, 20 photographs of the wayang kulit, captured by Khoo while it was performed, will be exhibited at Interpr8 Art Space in Publika, Kuala Lumpur.
Called Storm Clouds – Wayang Kulit In Photography, the exhibition seeks to show the intricacies of the ancient art form, though principally it acts as a fundraiser for Pusaka and its efforts to research and create a comprehensive documentary archive of Malaysian traditional performances.
“Through this exhibition, we would like to engage with the wider public simply by thrilling them. The wonder of the traditional theatre is that it is irresistible. That is its power, a power that transcends a mere performance itself. It’s the narrative, the music and the entire experience and environment you find yourself in,” Khoo shared in a recent interview.
When asked about the curatorial direction of Storm Clouds, the 44-year-old said that it essentially rests on the essence of the wayang kulit itself, that is, the trick of light and the play of shadows. In fact, it is these shadows that play an integral role in this exhibition.
One cursory glance at the photographs exhibited may wax your disinterest, for all that your eyes may see are black and white shadows. But you see, that is a trick of the light as well for if you but stop and gaze into the pictures, intricate patterns, deep and rich colours and marvellous shapes will begin to blossom.
“The images exhibited are all from the shadow screen … nothing of the dalang (storyteller) or the musicians. What I attempted to capture is the trick of light that is the wayang kulit. Wayang is very difficult to photograph because it is so fast. In just one flick, entire scenes are done.
“I’m not saying I’m technically trained as a photographer, but I know the wayang. I know exactly when a puppet is going to be pulled out or when a fight scene is going to take place. That is what I want to show. I hope the images show sophistication of very refined and cultivated aesthetic methods that go into the wayang.
“I also wanted to show subtlety because when you play with that kind of light, you never know what kind of texture will come across. They were all captured in colour but because of the timing and the focus and what not, a lot of them appear as if they are black and white, but they are not. If you look very closely at the images, there are textures of colours that are very interesting,” Khoo explained.
The apprentice shadow puppeteer, who was under the tutelage of the late Dalang Abdullah Ibrahim, added that through this exhibition he wished to introduce the different wayang kulit characters and their different shapes, designs and gestures during a performance. But more than that, the refinery that makes wayang kulit, aesthetically and culturally, sophisticated.
Khoo enthusiastically reckoned that the traditional art form is all about subtlety.
“The humour is very sophisticated and there’s a lot satire involved. That is an utter contrast to what Malaysians have become, very loud, very simple and sometimes very vulgar. We are not that kind of people,” he opined.
But there is still hope he says.
“I think the situation is changing. I think the Malaysian self is starting to recognise that it is very hollow.”
This is why he sincerely hopes that via this exhibition and portrayal of the wayang kulit and all the refinery and intellectual, aesthetical and cultural weight it carries, people’s curiosity will be pricked and an interest in this waning tradition will see resurgence.
“It is very good to draw people back into getting inquisitive just through these images. There is still a lot of work to be done. I would want Malaysians to understand that the wayang kulit is for them to claim and own, regardless of their background or ethnicity.
“If you look at the deep interactions of our society, the Malay, the Chinese, the Indian, we go way beyond what our politics have given us. You will see that the interactions are really deep and incredibly complicated and complex,” he asserted.
It is worth mentioning that Pusaka’s efforts to enhance the viability of the wayang kulit through written and audio-visual documentation of the performance was boosted by the US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation grant. This project also aims to bequeath the knowledge of this traditional art to the next generation performer through training and workshops.
Storm Clouds may not conjure an intellectual hurricane in your minds but at least, your deep-seated curiosity about the fabric of our nation could finally rear its head.
> Storm Clouds – Wayang Kulit In Photography is on at Interpr8 Art Space, Level G4, Publika Solaris Dutamas, Jalan Solaris Dutamas 1 in Kuala Lumpur till Dec 15. Exhibition is open 11am to 7pm daily, except on Sundays. Free admission. More information:www.facebook.com/interpr8.