I’ve been scared of puppets since before I can remember, and I don’t know how this happened. It probably has something to do with an episode of Scooby-Doo in which a nice man who’s been helping Shaggy and the crew out suddenly collapses and, voilà, we see that he was not, after all, a good Samaritan. Instead, he’s a mindless vessel through which the villain could trap Scooby and friends in a large and psychopathically decorated mansion. Anyway, since then I’ve never been able to trust a puppeteer, or enjoy any sort of performance involving puppets. Besides being scary, I always thought puppets were pointless. A sock doesn’t tell a story any better than a real mouth, nor is it particularly interesting to look at.
This negative perception radically changed today when I went to see “Visions of the Sacred: Puppets and Performing Arts of South and Southeast Asia” at the Whitney Humanities Center. Though puppets comprise most of the art displayed, there are also photographs of puppeteers themselves and other performing artists. The exhibit showcased works of art that depicted gods, monsters and other religious figures in order to make sacred stories accessible to wide audiences. Unlike the entirely evil puppets of Scooby-Doo, these puppets are specifically designed to include angelic and demonic elements that reflect the cosmic balance of good and evil in each living thing. Most puppets are made either of wood, leather or paper. Their intricate designs and vibrant clothing highlight the puppet-makers’ painstaking attention to detail.
Little pamphlets are available at entrance of the exhibit, a great help to patrons like me who don’t know much about Southeast Asian history and culture. The pamphlets detail the myths behind the puppets being showcased. Many puppets portray characters from the Ramayana — one of the great Hindu epics — such as Sita, Rama and Hanuman. This excited me because I had recently watched a documentary about the Ramayana, and I felt both #informed and #culturallyliterate.
I then moved on from the one myth I was familiar with. One of my favorite pieces was a series of puppets that were, respectively, a clown, female dancer, a king and an ogress. They represented characters from either from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata and were all dressed beautifully, except for the ogress. While the female dancer wore a nice green dress, the ogress wore a black blouse with two red cut outs over her breasts in what looked like a middle school attempt at sexiness. The artist further differentiated her from the story’s protagonists by having her stick her tongue out, while the rest were smiling.
The foursome described above were the last display on one side of a long hallway that led into a room, which I was at this point about to enter. Up until this moment, the way the art was arranged was not particularly awe-inspiring and did not do justice to the sacred quality of the subject matter. However, the room at the end completely changed this aesthetic. Seeing the puppets in a large, dark, silent space helped me better grasp their holy, powerful and slightly terrifying nature. Bizarrely, someone had set up the interior of the room with dining tables and chairs, and I have no qualms saying that it was easily the last place on the planet I would ever want to eat.
In this space, in sharp contrast to the other areas of the exhibit, everything felt more sacred. As I was reading the stories in the pamphlet, I found myself truly expecting that the Barong (protective lion) would come to life to defend Ratna, the princess who’d refused to marry a powerful witch. And the indoor ogress had a more credible monstrosity than the ogress in the hallway. I was especially struck by one display that showed a small man crawling into the ear of a larger version of himself, the latter of whom was having a discussion with a potbellied old man. The little man had discovered, in his larger alter ego, the cosmos. This is presumably what he was discussing with the fat little man, who was a “God-clown” and who, in addition to being very wise and the first being to emerge from the crack of the cosmic egg, is a “farting old man with the voice of the little guy.”
The idea of a flawed god figure in many ways encompasses the exhibit’s underlying theme. God-clown spreads wisdom, but is still accessible to people; the puppets serve to bring religious messages to people who are illiterate and cannot access them otherwise. Overall, I thought the exhibit effectively communicated both the incredible form of the artwork as well as its function, and it will leave viewers with a more informed opinion on puppetry as a field.
Contact Coryna Ogunseitan at