Kathy Foley, curator of Malay Theatre: Intangible Cultural Heritage and Islam, boasts decades of experience studying the art and theater of Indonesia and Southeast Asia. A trained performer in the art of wayang, traditional Indonesian mask and puppetry, Foley holds the distinction of being one of the first non-Indonesians to be invited to the prestigious all-Indonesia National Wayang Festival and has performed all across the United States. She currently serves as a professor of theater at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and has curated exhibits of puppets and masks of Southeast Asia at such venues as the National Geographic Society and the East-West Center in Hawaii. Patricia Hardwick, co-curator, also possesses an extensive background in the ethnography and culture of Southeast Asia. Her research focuses primarily on mak yong, a traditional form of Malaysian female dance drama. Hardwick frequently travels to Malaysia to conduct ethnographic fieldwork specializing in the field of sociocultural anthropology. Hardwick currently serves as an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Hofstra University. Both Foley and Hardwick served as Fellows in Sacred Music, Worship and the Arts, at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. The pair’s joint exhibition, currently displayed in the Whitney Humanities Center, explores the traditional Southeast Asian art forms of wayang and mak yong, taking the viewer on a journey through the region’s deep history and culture. The exhibit features traditional puppets, attire and instruments from the Malay performance art and tracks the evolution of this art form and its cultural significance, especially in the face of growing opposition from fundamental Islamic governments. I sat down with Foley and Hardwick on the eve of the exhibit’s opening to discuss the history of the art form, the political implications of their work and what they hope students learn from the fascinating world of traditional Malay theater.
Q: What first drew you to studying the culture and art of Indonesia, Malaysia and Southeast Asia?
Foley: For me, travelling in Indonesia was the first thing. And studying Malaysia was really an invitation from the University of Malaya and that’s when I really started looking at puppetry and how it related to the work I had already been doing in Indonesia.
Hardwick: My husband is actually Malaysian, and I started working in Malaysia perhaps in 2003 or 2004 on a different topic, but I was drawn to mak yong, which is the dance theater of Malaysia, because I began working with many practitioners, and I was very much drawn to the philosophy behind the arts. The more that I did research on the work, the deeper into the genre I was drawn, and I’ve been working now for more than ten years on mak yong.
Q: How would you say performance art in Indonesia and Southeast Asia differs from that of Western cultures, especially in regard to your different specialties in dance and puppetry?
F: Puppetry and dance are not really divided in any way in many of the Southeast cultures. Rather, puppetry is conceptualized as the first start which then the dancer is often emulating. The aesthetic of flowing movement comes from the shadow puppet so the kinds of breakdowns we have in Western art don’t really apply. For this particular show, I was tempted when I went to Malaysia because I was struck by how different wayang is in Malaysia today as an almost dying art, banned by the political party and aspects of fundamentalist Islam, how different that is from Indonesia where it is considered the great art of the palaces. All of the greatest superstars — they’re sort of like the rock bands of America — are some of these dalang [puppeteers] who make $10,000 a night per performance. So, I mean it’s a whole different performance, nothing like puppetry in America.
H: There is definitely that transference from puppetry to dance movement. There’s a transference in the philosophy as well and now because of the ban [mak yong was banned by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party in 1991 based on its Hindu and Buddhist roots], as Kathy mentioned, there are fewer and fewer performers, so performers … are now consolidating. So, as the artistic community shrinks, more people are doing the shadow puppeteering, they’re also a mak yong performer, they’re also ritual healers. So, it’s sort of like a bottleneck and these arts are coming together even more than in the past.
Q: This particular exhibit is about the Malay theater culture and Islam. Could you give me a bit of history about that relationship and walk me through your process of curating this exhibit?
F: Well, the story of wayang, certainly in Indonesia and to a lesser extent in Malaysia, is that it was created by the Wali [Islamic saints] as a method of converting the country to Islam. These stories are Islamic stories; … we have inscriptions talking about wayang and some of those stories in an earlier iteration, but they were transformed during that Islamization process. These are Islamic arts, funded by Islam. So I would say, funding that’s come from Saudi Arabia [has created] a new contemporary style of Islam that deviates greatly from what Islam has been as an important cultural force in many areas of the region.
Q: So the shifting influence on these theater arts has come from a shifting idea of what Islam is?
F: The shift comes from a larger geopolitical structure and the way the world is being divided up and the funding of particular philosophies.
H: I’ve spent a long time looking at how mak yong is sort of a ball in play in this political environment. So you have Malay ethnic nationalism on one hand in which mak yong in its tangible cultural heritage form can exist as an empty shell stripped of ritual and these other deeper meanings, but in the village form, ironically, after the ban the only form that continues is the ritual form. So mak yong ends up like a ball tossed up between Malay ethnic nationalism and people who argue that the government is creating this Islamic state [in which] performers cannot perform any more.
Q: You both mentioned the dalangs’ efforts to preserve the traditional culture. How do you see creating this exhibit as a way of preserving this culture and relaying it to a new audience? Essentially, what exactly was your purpose in bringing this to Yale?
F: Just making people aware of the question, the issues. Whenever you do an exhibit or anything else, you are hoping that people come and see and learn something, but there’s always perhaps one person who really is impacted, sees an issue, goes as Patricia did when she was a young person, goes into the village and sees what’s going on.
Q: Given the current political climate and everything that’s going on in the world right now, do you feel more of a responsibility as artists and researchers to promote this exchange?
F: I mean, of course, the ideas certainly that you find in this country about what “Islam” is are very, very narrow. To realize the wealth of the music, dance, theater and performance, and that while all of the kinds of tropes that we say about Islam may apply to some people in some countries, they have never applied to all of the people in those countries. And certainly there is very little awareness in our country of what Islam is in its wider forms in Southeast Asia and its essential use of the arts to teach philosophy, religion and connection.
H: I would also touch on the idea of preservation. I think when you’re dealing with arts like this that are performed and that are embodied and new with each performance, in a sense, there is no preservation without performance. They have to be embodied in a sense to be alive. So, in terms of this exhibit, I think that it gives a very good visual understanding of the aesthetics of the art, and I do hope that people will be interested to learn more, and as Kathy noted, there are 1.6 million Muslims in Bali. There are many ways that people have learned to be Muslim, just as there are many ways to be Christian or Jewish. Our lived experience of that is often very different from the literal, textual interpretation and I think a lot of the traditional practitioners of these forms are fighting back against that concept of “What do you mean I can’t be a Muslim and do this?” because these things have gone together for a long time.
F: Performance is also a whole lot of fun. It’s a way of bringing villages and communities together as performing arts always do. It’s quite sad that some of those things are being lost because the community bonds over everything that it can represent.
Q: What do you hope students take away when they come visit this exhibit?
F: I hope they see one beautiful image that inspires them in some way either to follow a path toward more knowledge of this art or create their own art in any way, shape or form. Someone may be attracted to the idea of puppetry or the idea of transparent puppetry. Another person may see it as a visual form to put into their artistic practice. Other people might want to take away the ideas. It’s for whatever the viewer finds use.