'Gerak Bayang' exhibition: where light and shadow meet


Nik Zainal Abidin's artwork 'Wayang Kulit' (watercolour, 1969) is one of the many paintings from Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery's collection being exhibited at the 'Gerak Bayang: The Art Of Storytelling' show. Photo: Bank Negara Malaysia Collection

Before the advent of modern cinema and television, Malaysians – especially those living on the East Coast – had long been accustomed to the art of wayang kulit, (shadow puppets) in their villages.

The traditional art form – the most distinctive style of wayang kulit being the wayang kulit Siam, practised in Kelantan – remains one of the most celebrated national treasures.

The dalang or shadow puppeteer would skillfully manipulate the shadow puppets behind a kelir (screen) while narrating the story to an audience. Interestingly, this runs parallel to today’s artists too, as they use their respective techniques through drawings, sculptures, installations, and multimedia to tell their own stories. A treasure trove of stories was told back then; from the origin story of Hikayat Seri Rama and Pandawa Lima, which were adapted from Hindu epics, to other narratives that evolved with the infusion of current highlights.

In Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery’s (BNM MAG) new exhibition Gerak Bayang: The Art Of Storytelling, visitors can enjoy an informative art-inspired survey of wayang kulit’s past, present and future. It is the gallery’s biggest post-pandemic show, which runs through the end of January.

A visitor takes a closer look at wayang kulit puppet exhibits at the 'Gerak Bayang: The Art of Storytelling' show in Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery. Photo: The Star/Kamarul AriffinA visitor takes a closer look at wayang kulit puppet exhibits at the 'Gerak Bayang: The Art of Storytelling' show in Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery. Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin

A list of 39 established and young artists are contributing 144 artworks, each with a unique style and interpretation of the wayang kulit tradition.

Gerak Bayang is more than just an artistic display. It embodies the philosophy that creativity serves as a catalyst for agility and inclusion. The works offer different perspectives, reflecting the power and potential of cultivating ideas, viewpoints, and approaches,” says Noreen Zulkepli, BNM MAG director.

The exhibition is divided into two sections, with traditional wayang kulit art delivered through the batik medium, abstract paintings and also watercolours, while the contemporary section features an array of multimedia works, conceptual art and pop culture-based shadow puppets.

The exhibits feature basic material (such as buffalo or cowhide, paper, canvas) and also lean towards the cutting edge with new media techniques.

The artist line-up includes names like Chua Thean Teng, Nik Zainal Abidin, Long Thien Shih, Yusof Abdullah, Ismail Mat Hussin, Syed Thajudeen, Yusof Ghani, Mad Anuar, Chang Fee Ming, Masnoor Ramli Mahmud, Haris Abadi, Nik Mohd Husyaidie, and Adeputra.

Tintoy Chuo, the co-founder of Fusion Wayang Kulit, is also exhibiting a series of pop culture-based wayang kulit puppet characters, including 'Star Wars' and 'Batman'. Photo: The Star/Kamarul AriffinTintoy Chuo, the co-founder of Fusion Wayang Kulit, is also exhibiting a series of pop culture-based wayang kulit puppet characters, including 'Star Wars' and 'Batman'. Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin

The artworks, especially the paintings on display, span a few generations.

There are paintings from Nik Zainal and Chuah dating back to the late 1950s, while an early 1970s abstract work from Syed Thajudeen is one of the exhibition’s highlights.

The exhibition, featuring Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery’s art collection and also a number of loans (from the National Art Gallery to Khazanah Nasional), showcases the story of wayang kulit for the newcomer as well as the traditional arts enthusiast.

The gallery experience is well-paced with visitors learning about how wayang kulit combines oral storytelling, performance art, visual aesthetics, and literary creativity and how it continues to embrace diverse approaches, leading to more inclusive outcomes.

BNM MAG curator Siti Melorinda Khuzaini Sakdudin invites the public to explore this exhibition as a way of preserving and enhancing the appreciation for wayang kulit, particularly the art of puppetrering, to ensure the sustainability of this traditional performing art.

“In this era of digitalisation, documentation plays a vital role as a reference for all, ensuring wider exposure and understanding of this art form” says Siti Melorinda.

The 'Gerak Bayang: The Art of Storytelling' features more than 144 artworks and a collection of artefacts. Photo: The Star/Kamarul AriffinThe 'Gerak Bayang: The Art of Storytelling' features more than 144 artworks and a collection of artefacts. Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin

“Efforts to enhance innovation in artistic creations can also increase the audience’s curiosity to learn more about wayang kulit. For the artists, we don’t only get to delight in their work but also to ponder their ‘voices’ as they reinvent the way we look at wayang kulit. This, in turn, raises awareness to ensure the art of fellow puppeteers and shadow puppets remain alive,” she adds.

A glimpse of the past

In the exhibition’s catalogue, Siti Melorinda outlines the significance of the theatre in the community.

“In the past, the wayang kulit theatre was among the places where the community gathered to unwind and relax after toiling throughout the day to earn a living. The dalang would entertain the crowd with traditional tales, incorporating moral lessons and humour to captivate their attention, often highlighting family values.

“Throughout the performance, the audience would enjoy the show and move freely under the night sky. At the beginning and end of the show, a special puppet called the Pohon Beringin (Tree of Life or banyan tree) is used to signify the start and conclusion of the performance. The pohon beringin, which is set up by the dalang behind the screen, contains ‘life’ within it, such as animals and flowers.”

Two artworks which emphasise this practice, come from Ismail Mat Hussin, a prominent batik artist hailing from Pantai Sabak, Kelantan. He depicts the backstage atmosphere in his artwork Wayang Kulit (1988) portraying a scene where four musicians are engaged in rehearsal. They skillfully play a range of traditional instruments; serunai, geduk and gedombak, all set against a backdrop of wayang kulit puppets representing diverse characters on the screen.

A wayang kulit performance by Che Mohd Nasir Yusoff (Pak Nasir), Adiguru wayang kulit, during the exhibition’s launch in August. Photo: Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art GalleryA wayang kulit performance by Che Mohd Nasir Yusoff (Pak Nasir), Adiguru wayang kulit, during the exhibition’s launch in August. Photo: Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery

On the other side of the screen, his other artwork, also called Wayang Kulit (no date), describes the scene from the viewer’s eyes. The audience who have travelled from the east coast can be recognised by their headdress, which is a semutar. They are all seated closely together, engrossed in the performance of Kelantanese wayang kulit puppets.

From ‘kelir’ to screens

The methods and techniques of storytelling have evolved. From the dalang performing wayang kulit on stage, the role of storyteller is now also taken on by painters, sculptors, graphic designers, and animators. Artists go beyond mere form-shaping; they also adjust stories and characters to fit contemporary contexts, like situating Seri Rama in the modern world.

Mansor Ramli Mahmud touched the cyber world through Rama In Cyberworld (1995). His picture seems to be the clash of Rama’s traditional world in the face of modernity and the latest technology that is constantly changing and developing. This reflects the context of the artist in the 1990s, where there was substantial growth of technology among the Malaysian community. More and more people are studying computing and have personal computers.

Some artists also incorporated popular animated characters into their works. In his piece Warrior (2006), Mohd Taquddin Bahro skillfully combines wayang kulit and Transformers characters, originally derived from games and later adapted into popular animations and comics during the 1990s.

This art form is both diverse and traditional, as it exemplifies the artist’s technique of painting and silkscreen prints.

Visitors taking photos of Nik Mohd Husyaidie’s 'Ruang Beringin' (mixed media, 2022), which features a ‘pohon berigin’ installation. Photo: The Star/Kamarul AriffinVisitors taking photos of Nik Mohd Husyaidie’s 'Ruang Beringin' (mixed media, 2022), which features a ‘pohon berigin’ installation. Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin

Many may even be familiar with Peperangan Bintang, a contemporary wayang kulit series which incorporates characters from Star Wars that have been adapted and tailored to fit the local art form.

In the exhibition, characters like Han Solong, Subali Chubbakar are featured, along with Azrael Batman from the Batman comics and film, allowing visitors to observe and compare them with traditional wayang kulit designs.

These 2017 pieces made by Tintoy Chuo proved quite popular among the younger visitors of the exhibition, as those characters are much more prominent in mainstream media.

Unbounded potential

While the exhibition will be open to the public till January 2024, Gerak Bayang serves as a promising prologue, where art communities are able to collaborate with organisations, empowering individuals with creative skills, and fostering a sense of national identity and pride.

“Even up to this day (in Kelantan), dalang and other performers can be found engaged in friendly, at times, also raucous discussion about the genealogies, symbolism, characterisation of wayang characters, according to the various lineages from which these stories have been passed down,” writes Eddin Khoo, the founder of traditional culture outfit Pusaka, in an illuminating essay in the exhibition catalogue.

An early work from Long Thien Shih titled 'Wayang Kulit' (oil painting, 1964), which he painted from a backstage view during a TV Malaysia (RTM) cultural show recording in 1963. Long was working as a TV set designer back then. Photo: The Star/Kamarul AriffinAn early work from Long Thien Shih titled 'Wayang Kulit' (oil painting, 1964), which he painted from a backstage view during a TV Malaysia (RTM) cultural show recording in 1963. Long was working as a TV set designer back then. Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin

“Orality has bequeathed the wayang tradition of the Kelantan region a freedom and inventiveness free of the strictures imposed by classism, or a pretend classism – a quality strived for in more formal and institutionalised versions of the present day wayang kulit,” he adds.

Increased accessibility to exhibitions like this would contribute to a better understanding and appreciation for such a beloved Malaysian cultural heritage.

An opportunity to learn and understand wayang kulit – from its deep roots to its hybrid versions – is one of the reasons why this exhibition will be remembered long after the exhibits have been taken down.

In the coming months, there will be several programmes within this Gerak Bayang exhibition, which the public is open to participate in, such as the guided tour, wayang kulit performance, workshops, talks, puppet-making classes, and interactive exhibits for young visitors.

BNM also has an array of merchandise inspired by the exhibition. You can’t go wrong with a cardboard wayang kulit puppet and colouring kit, which will definitely light up a child or adult’s imagination.

Gerak Bayang: The Art Of Storytelling is showing at the Art Gallery, Level 3, Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery until Jan 28, 2024. Open on Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm. Admission is free. More info here.


Follow us on our official WhatsApp channel for breaking news alerts and key updates!
   

Next In Culture

London's last remaining cabmen's shelter receives official heritage status
Weekend for the arts: shades of silence, Japan Anime Exhibition
Greece reopens historic mosque for Eid celebration
'Sadness' as Australian court rules against 'women only' art exhibit
Novels from Asia, Europe and South America vie for International Booker Prize
Heritage textile award honours artists, designers and craftsfolk
Street artist brings hometown flavour to Negri Sembilan
Anime invasion: a month of thrilling events to check out in KL
Do you speak Dothraki? US linguist couple creates fantasy languages for film
JK Rowling: 'Harry Potter' author criticised for gender views

Others Also Read