1-30 Puppets!!

Shadow puppet!

We spent our first day in Jogja just kind of wandering. We took a walk from the hotel into the main part of town, which involved yet another detour. (Jogja is hard to navigate and google maps does not apply.) After several hours of being hawked to, pounded by the sun and pressed by crowds, we were happy to duck into the state-run tourism office. It was quiet and air conditioned, and – best of all – it had information for a puppet show!

Ever since I got sick and we couldn’t go see a show in Bali, I’ve been on the hunt for a puppet show. I got directions to the venue and was ready to head back out into the crowd. Then Jason reminded me that we wanted to do a dawn tour of Borobudur. So, we bought tickets with a tour company for 4 am the next morning to go see Borobudur and Prambanan temples.

Each character had about a dozen puppets of various sizes.  Look close for the ridiculous detail in cutting and painting.

The puppet show started at 8 pm. We got there early to see the puppet makers working their magic. The puppets are ridiculously detailed. Each image is cut out of buffalo leather. Then the details are punched, cut and carved into it. The hems of clothes are punched with lines of dots along the edge, the patterns in fabric are cut with tiny arch blades that make flower petals when applied correctly. The detail is exquisite.

The full ensemble.

Once the cutting is done, they go on to be painted. Even though these are shadow puppets, the painting is as detailed as the rest of it. Each character has a set “style,” certain colors and hair styles go with certain images. The last layer of paint is gold, which is used for edge and details.

The performance itself was not what I was expecting. Coming from the tradtions of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater, I’m used to lively puppets. When I think puppet show, I think of characters that dance and move and who’s gestures tell the story. The narration is a compliment to the story the characters are telling. This style of puppetry was almost the opposite.

The Wayan, or master puppeteer.

First, there is one puppeteer, who is also the narrator. Then, backing him up, are about a dozen musicians. Each scene starts with the appearance of the characters. Once they are “standing” on stage, they are fairly static. They had moveable arms, but with only one puppeteer, there was a minimum of movement. The scene progresses with conversation between the characters punctuated by singing and musical interludes. It was like a musical, minus the dancing part.

The show that we saw was meant for curious people. They were set up to allow seats both in front and behind the stage. I walked back and forth between the puppet side and the back stage side to get a chance to see how it all worked. The performers were professionals, up to and including whispered comments during the show. Even with those comments, I couldn’t detect a single missed beat or cue throughout the night. Then again, the whole thing was in the local Javanese language, so what do I know?

You can see the articulated joints and the detailed cut outs in the hair and clothes.

I really enjoyed seeing a Javanese puppet show. It is not a puppetry tradition I know or have experienced. I learned something, I saw art, what could be better?

1-14 Silversmithing or How to Make a Silver Ring

I want to be a silversmith when I grow up.

The paper-coated silver strips

No. Seriously. I love blacksmithing (hence the blacksmithing class in my past), but it is hard to do mostly because it requires space and materials. I did do some on the little forge I built during the class, but it was always kind of a pain. I think silversmithing solves that problem.

We took a silversmithing mini-course. When I saw it on the travel sites, of course I got excited. Anything creative does that to me. It seemed cool and was well-recommended on all the sites I saw, so I contacted the place and set up an appointment. (More complicated that one might think, but it all worked out in the end.)

Punching out the letters

We walked up to a beautiful archway at 9am. Inside the archway was a family compound. We went in. The smiling grandma in the first doorway pointed us further back. The two kids in school uniforms on the next porch pointed us further back. We went down a small slope and into an open-sided pavilion. A middle-aged woman put down her wash and ushered us over to chairs. She brought us water and a bunch of books of silver jewelery pictures. We sat and slipped through them while we waited for something else to happen.

It needs to be noted that during our brief stopover in Australia, Jason once again “misplaced” his ring. He left it at a friend’s house while he showered. So, Jason was shy a wedding ring and we were making silver jewelery. Does this seem like an excellent opportunity to anyone else? We decided on rings. Just to be cute, we went for matching ones.

Welding the rings shut

The teachers at the place were excellent. They sized the ring, then used calipers and the ring size to mark out a piece of paper in the correct shape. We drew out our design. They cut out the design and glued it to a strip of silver.

Once the strip was glued on, we had to etch the design into the metal. We used a handful of tiny punches to cut the lines. The punches were straight and curved and came in a variety of widths, curvature and lengths. It was like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, except instead of pieces I had to match the line to the right shape and size of punch. It took us quite awhile.

When the etching was done, we flipped the strips over and punched “TEGABIS” into the backs. I messed up the “E” in mine. When the teachers saw it, they took it away, soldered new silver over and gave it back for me to fix. Did I mention they were good teachers?

Grinding, sanding and polishing to a smooth finish

The teachers took and pounded the strips into rings by hitting the metal around a round stick with the back of the hammer. We each had to try the ring on a few times, and cut out tiny strips of metal, to get the right fit. When we were satisfied, they welded the ring shut.

After the ring was a ring, I thought we were done. Nope. First, the teacher painted them with an oxidizing agent, then he left them in front of a hairdryer. When the oxidizing agent had properly taken affect, we started buffing them. Three rounds of buffing made them shiny and smooth, then we repeated that on the inside.


At the end of the morning, we had two new rings and I have a new hobby. (Well, once I get home I will have a new hobby.) We joked that now we have wedding rings. It took us 5 years and a unique path, but isn’t that just a reflection of us?

1-8 Museums and Rice Paddies

The gates to the museum.  Impressive, no?

Our second day in Ubud, we decided to go look for culture and rice paddies. The Agung Rai Museum of Art (ARMA) was supposed to be one of the best art museums in Bali, and it was in the same direction as some rice paddies I wanted to take pictures of. So, we went exploring.

The ARMA was pretty neat. As usual, I don’t have the artistic background to appreciate modern art. There were 2 pieces that stood out to me. One was a painting covered in religious symbols. Each symbol was in a little box and the boxes made rows. I think if I knew more about the symbols in question, it would have been a fascinating piece. As it was, I could recognize the Hindu and Buddhist origins but that was about all. The second artist had squeezed the paint out of the tube in long lines. She layered them on top of each other with spaces in between to make an amazing 3D effect in the rice fields, on the hat of the workers and the thatch of the houses. I thought that was pretty cool.

Me, trying to carve. 

More interesting was the “traditional” section. There were traditional style paintings from a huge range of time periods. The older ones were batik images showing scenes from Hindu epics while the newest one depicted the Tiger plane crash in April, 2013. It was interesting to see the different influences throughout history and how they chose to display them in the museum. The paintings from around WWII had a distinctly Japanese cast, everything from flowers and mountains to the way the human form was depicted. The more modern ones had more colors per image while the older ones had one main color and then one or two highlight colors. (I wonder if this comes from the history of batik, in which colors are layered over one another with the negative spaces created by wax.)

The path to the paddies

After we wandered around the galleries, we went out to the wood carving demonstration. The carver allowed us to try, but we were both being timid. I was afraid I would ruin it, which made him laugh. He didn’t seem to think I could, which looking at his other stuff, I’m not sure I could have. I think he would have just incorporated it back into the work and no one would ever know the difference.

We wandered out the back of the museum into a rice paddy. At first, the path was nice and neatly kept with stepping stones to walk on. Then, it turned into plain concrete, and finally into raised mud. I think we were further than most tourists go, but it was interesting. The first ones we were walking through were all plain mud. There were little nurseries in the corner with bright green rice seedlings while ducks roamed the mud. We met a nice old farmer working on blocking his seedlings from the ducks, but we couldn’t communicate much with him.

Duck, duck, grey duck (or brown duck)

After awhile, we wandered out the back of the rice paddies and into a little neighborhood. On a whim, we followed a sign that said “Kris display” (‘Kris’ are the Hindu swords.) The sign pointed into someone’s household complex. We walked in and stood there in confusion for awhile. An old lady found us and brought us to the kris display. There were a bunch of beautiful kris with stunningly rippled blades. She had a wide variety of ages of the blades. They were her husband’s but he died and She was trying to sell some to us, but we turned her down and left. I think she needs to sell them to a museum.

Down the alley

The contrast between the curated art museum and the back room of an old woman’s house didn’t even strike me until the evening. Somehow, it seemed to fit that both of those things would exist basically side-by-side in Ubud. There were a lot of contrasts like that in Ubud.

Rice paddies tucked in behind the main road

3-8 Kastom Danis

During Jason’s training in January, I was on Pentecost by my lonesome for a week or so. It was a busy week. Between a wedding, which is a two day affair around here, a kastom danis and a trip up to visit my nearest PCV neighbor, I didn’t have too much time to notice Jason’s absence.

The trip up top was great. Alexandra is about a two hour hike away. The bad part is that it is two hours straight up a hill. Even worse, I forgot my camera and don’t have any good pictures from the trip. I’ll write more about her site and visiting when I have some good photos to prove it.

Instead, here is a video of the kastom danis I watched. It reminds me a lot of Morris or a Pow Wow. There is a lot of chanting and stomping of feet, though in this video, they were using the string band instruments to play the kastom music for the dance. That was a very Vanuatu moment.

1-30 The State of Art

In keeping with the American theme of “State of the” addresses, I’m writing a post about the “State of Art” in Pentecost.
There is some beautiful art available in the form of woven goods. Pentecost specializes in baskets, but everywhere in Vanuatu makes mats. They weave them out of pandanus leaves. The tree looks like something from Dr. Seuss. The leaves are either light brown or white, depending on how they are prepared. The white ones can be “painted” or dyed with store-bought dyes that have a nice range of colors. The matts are usually a variation simple weaving themes with just a few stripes of color.
The baskets can be made into just about any pattern by a skilled weaver. My bubu (granny) can weave the Vanuatu flag or weave names into the baskets. It’s pretty impressive, since they do all of it without a pattern. There are some “standard” patterns for baskets. They range from simple, or what they are willing to teach me at the moment, to complicated. The basket I was given upon arrival in Vansemakul is in the complicated realm while Jason’s basket is considered plain. The picture is Jason’s basket. I’ll get a good picture of mine eventually.

The other kind of dye is used for special mats. There is a vine that grows only in Central Pentecost which makes a vibrant red dye. The mats dyed with this are used for kastom ceremonies and kastom economics. For instance, fines are often paid in red mats and red mats are given to the family of bride or groom. There are two kinds of red mats, the big ones are used purely for payments. The small ones are used for payments but are also clothing for kastom ceremonies. The clothing I’m referring to here is a loin cloth.

The red mats are not woven with their patterns, instead they are dyed after they are woven by being boiled in the dye while tied around a banana tree. I haven’t seen the process yet, I’ll write more when I do.

Besides that, the art is pretty minimal in my area. There is some kastom dancing, though I haven’t seen much of it yet. On Ambae there is wood carving and on Malekula there are masks and kastom dancing. Tanna has volcano related dances and ritual theater.
It is hard for me to not be inundated by art. I’m used to being surrounded by people who oozue creativity. Here, people rarely sing. Not because they aren’t happy, but because singing is something you do in a band, not whenever you feel like it. Art feels like a luxury here in a way it didn’t at home.
I bought a guitar. I have plans to make stilts. I’m writing a lot. I’ve been combating the lack of art for art’s sake by producing more on my own. It is good for my productivity and this place is beautiful enough to feed a large amount of creativity. I’ll survive and be even more grateful for my friends who believe in creating art in any form.