Epic narrative. Exquisite music. Spirited humor. And puppets. The performing-art form wayang golek has it all, says Kathy Foley, a scholar and master puppeteer who is deeply versed in this brand of theater, traditional to the Sundanese culture of West Java, Indonesia.
Wayang golek could be likened to “a combination of what we would think of as opera, Shakespeare and popular stand-up comedy,” with dance (by puppets) and some “high philosophical wisdom” thrown in, says Foley, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She was speaking by phone in the lead-up to “The Miraculous Birth of Hanuman, the Monkey King,” the wayang golek production in which she’s scheduled to perform at the Freer Gallery of Art on Oct. 4.
The show, which dramatizes an episode from Hindu mythology, also will feature gamelan musicians from the Indonesian College of the Arts in the city of Bandung. It’s all part of “Performing Indonesia: Music, Dance and Theater From West Java,” a two-day festival being presented by the Smithsonian’s Freer/Arthur M. Sackler galleries and the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia.
The festival lineup also includes a scholarly symposium on the performing arts of West Java organized by Andrew N. Weintraub, who chairs the music department at the University of Pittsburgh. Also on tap for the festival: a showcase of traditional and contemporary Sundanese music and dance, including the jaipongan dance, which was a popular sensation in late 20th-century Indonesia. Also — potential percussive cuteness alert! — a concert by about 300 Washington-area elementary school students playing the angklung, a tuned bamboo rattle.
The festival’s goals include boosting American awareness of Indonesian culture, enabling Indonesian and U.S. scholars to swap insights, and giving Americans who have trained in Indonesian performing arts a forum for strutting their stuff, said Haryo Winarso, the Indonesian Embassy’s educational and cultural attaché. He has particularly high hopes for the children’s programming, which includes a number of workshops, and “The Miraculous Birth of Hanuman.”
The embassy and the Freer/Sackler teamed up on an Indonesian-themed festival last year, but the scope was much broader, with art from Central Java, Sumatra and Bali on the program. “It was felt that this year — and in future years — we should be more focused. Shed a light on, and celebrate, and do more in depth” on specific cultures within Indonesia, says the festival’s coordinator, Michael Wilpers, manager of public programs at the Freer/Sackler.
The traditions of the Sundanese people, a distinctive ethnic group, seemed worthy of exploration in 2014. Compared with the heritages of Central Java and Bali, which have gained a certain amount of exposure in the West (with their shadow puppetry, for instance) the culture of West Java “is less known — and yet it has more diversity in terms of performing arts” than other areas of Indonesia, says Weintraub, whose publications include a book on wayang golek. The diversity is credited in part to West Java’s mountainous terrain and the historic lack of a homogenizing aristocratic court culture, he says.
Foley — who will act as dalang, or puppet master, for the “Birth of Hanuman,” manipulating the carved and painted wooden rod puppets, and improvising alongside musicians in accordance with wayang golek’s elaborate performance conventions — observes that the show will provide a mere taste of the art form. The festival Web site estimates that the performance will last 90 minutes. By contrast, in West Java, a wayang golek performance, like a jaipongan dance party, “would more normally be starting at 9 o’clock at night and going until three or four in the morning,” Foley notes. But, she says with a laugh, it’s “hard to keep the Smithsonian open” that late.
Feeling guilty that you missed the People’s Climate March in New York last weekend? You still can march down to the House of Sweden, where “Facing the Climate,” an exhibit of caricatures and cartoons about the looming environmental crisis, remains through Dec. 7. Artists from Sweden and other countries have contributed sly images to the exhibit, which toured around the world before alighting at the K Street building that houses the Embassy of Sweden. (The exhibit also features sustainable fashion pieces and other environmentally conscious innovations from Sweden.)
A polar bear wearing a sombrero floats on an ice floe the size of a surfboard. Oil seeps from a mound of fruit on a still-life canvas. God stretches his hand out to Adam, as in Michelangelo’s famous image — but here, Adam is lying on a junk heap and God is handing him a noose.
These and other cartoons add up to a blistering indictment of humanity’s treatment of the planet. But not every image is gloomy. Swedish artist and musician Love Antell dreamed up a delicate blue-green tree whose leaves are the world’s continents. “I wanted to make a picture that can instill hope,” Antell remarked in an e-mail.
Kicking around ideas for a potential logo for a global environmental movement , he hit on the idea of “a picture that tells us that we are linked together,” he added. “The branch is a parable of growth, but it’s also fragile.”
When he’s not working as an illustrator and cartoonist for Swedish newspapers and other publications, Antell makes his living as a politically attuned indie rocker. His fifth full-length album, coming out this winter, deals with the theme of migration.
“Art and music can form our point of view” and influence “how we act,” he says.
Performing Indonesia: Music, Dance and Theater From West Java . Oct. 4–5 at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Visit asia.si.edu.
Facing the Climate. Through Dec. 7 at House of Sweden, 2900 K Street NW. Visit www.houseofsweden.com.
Wren is a freelance writer.