Shadows, Strings and Other Things: The Enchanting Theatre of Puppets
At the Museum of Anthropology at UBC until October 14
Full disclosure: I’ve never been a fan of puppets or puppetry. It was a surprise, then, that Shadows, Strings and Other Things, the Museum of Anthropology’s exhibition of puppets from Asia, Europe, and the Americas, won me over.
Marionetas from Portugal, rukada from Sri Lanka, wayang kulit from Indonesia, budaixi from Taiwan, piyingxi from China, yoke thé from Myanmar, Punch and Judy from England, mamulengo from Brazil, dᵻugwe’ from this province’s Kingcome Inlet—all these diverse puppetry forms and traditions are fascinating. The sheer craftsmanship of the 250-plus handmade puppets on display, whether executed in wood, textile, silicone, papier-mâché, or animal hide, is equally compelling. And the cultural and historical significance of puppets as a traditional and sometimes centuries-old means of storytelling is compelling too. Because, really, as the show’s curator, Nicola Levell, asserted during the media preview, that’s what puppetry is about: storytelling.
The narratives represented here range from the Indian Ramayana and the Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms to the Italian Orlando Furioso and the Portuguese Lusiads. A number of the puppetry traditions on view at MOA, Levell said, are recognized by UNESCO as parts of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. I understood this to mean that the stories told, whether secular or religious, are intangible. The puppets themselves, the vehicles of such narratives, assert a strong material presence.
The show is seductively designed and installed with five beautifully made and adorned stages, each showcasing a different puppet type: shadow, string (marionette), rod, hand (glove), and stop-motion. The puppet theatres are complemented by “backstage” displays, demonstrating workshop and storage settings and again featuring an extraordinary array of puppets. There are numerous vitrines, too, along with video images of puppet shows, sound and light effects, and reams of wall text. With all this visual and verbal material to encounter and process, the exhibition demands a second visit. Maybe even a third.
Particularly arresting are intricately cut and translucently thin shadow puppets from China’s Hebei province; extravagantly rendered and adorned string puppets by Jorge Cerqueira of Sintra, Portugal; rod puppets with fabulously carved and painted wooden heads and beaded costumes, from Java, Indonesia; and the haunting stop-motion animation and accompanying silicone puppets of Indigenous filmmaker Amanda Strong. Equally compelling is a warlike Winalagalis puppet, made by the late Kwakwaka’wakw artist, activist, and storyteller Beau Dick. With its skeletal frame, dangling balls, and erectable penis, this being is a hilarious and frightening fusion of the deadly and the priapic. And, like so many of the puppets on display here, it tells a story of the human condition in terms both real and fantastical.