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“Scene of Souls in Hell” (19th century), donkey skin; Shaanxi, China (all images courtesy Museu do Oriente)

LISBON — Asian shadow theater is catnip for those with energetic imaginations. Its spellbinding, graceful interplay between light and shadow is riveting in its devoutly anti-realist and phantasmagoric aesthetic. As such, shadow theater might remind us of other (virtual) phantom presences in our culture. Not to mention our own inner world made up of fleeting, half-real mental projections staged in the theater of our minds.

Asian Shadows, a permanent exhibition at the Museu do Oriente in Lisbon, showcases the museum’s extensive collection of sensuous shadow puppets from Indonesia, China, India, Greece, Nepal, and Turkey — here set off by a dark, minimalist decor. When held and moved in front of a light source behind a white screen, the intricately cut puppets create shadows and various motion effects. Here, resting immobile before translucent screens illuminated from behind, the puppets’ forms only suggest the shady limbos they inhabit when performed. Still, the gentle white light creates something of an invisible stage where the frozen figures, so full of potential, are imagined to talk, hover, swoop, and vibrate.

“Scene of Souls in Hell” (19th century), donkey skin; Shaanxi, China (click to enlarge)

Asian shadow puppets are traditionally flat, cut-out figures that are attached to and controlled by sticks (or thin rods). In the exhibition, these visible sticks create a Brechtian distancing effect that can feel a bit awkward. The visible rods complicate and demystify the ghostliness of the puppets and bridge, as in “Giant of Battles” (1974) from Java, the gap between the subconscious/imaginary and the real/tangible. In India and Thailand, shadow theater must be considered within the context of temple festivities and as ceremonial fascination. Epics of spiritual battlefields, such as the Ramayana, are told through this art form where the light source behind a white screen acts as a space for the imagination to wonder and wander.

Shadow plays are thought to be one of the most ancient forms of puppetry and it’s unclear where shadow puppetry originated. Puppets have been used to voice dissent, as they have the latitude to say things humans cannot and are a bit withdrawn from reality. Some of the puppets at the Museu do Oriente in Lisbon depict sharply comical stories that mock authority. Others seem ready to perform crude language and uninhibited sex acts, such as “Erotic Clowns” (1950) from Thailand.

There is a dual nature to Asian shadow theater, as the emotional content of the performance is very deliberately split between the puppets and the narrator (who stands beside the stage but in full view of the audience). Therefore, this art form demands a special kind of attention and partisanship. Studying a work of puppetry as a work of art, like “Tree with Man-Shrimp” (1950) from Java, is an experience — the puppets are not just vehicles to comment on the world (often through theatrical and religious texts), but are visually attractive and powerful objects in themselves.

Installation view of ‘Asian Shadows’ at the Museu do Oriente, Lisbon

Traditional Asian shadow theater, including Thai (Nang Yai) and Malaysian (Wayang Sian), are characterized by extreme emotions, particularly angst and wretchedness. Yet in general, audiences are very forgiving of puppets — they only need to give the impression of life, rather than being ultra-realistic, because the viewer completes the scene with her imagination. In Javanese culture it is thought that once a puppet has eyes, its life begins — a life animated by music, environmental sounds, or audio effects. Asian performances are accompanied by several instruments, including the gong, the flute, the ektari (a single-stringed lute), the pungil (a pipe type of instrument), cymbals, the dhole (double sided drum), the muck veonal (a type of oboe), and the harmonica.

“Erotic Clowns” (1950) animal skin; Thailand (click to enlarge)

Most traditional shadow puppets in Asian Shadows depict characters in profile. The shape of the profile, position of the head, and ornamentation of the headdress define the character’s personality. Scenes of evil are central to some puppet dramas in China, as we can see with “Scene of Souls in Hell” (19th century), from Shaanxi, where three figures seem to be in the process of being cooked in boiling water, like shrimp. But there are a wide variety of shadow puppets from southern and southeastern Asia here, some depicting individual characters and others whole scenes. In general, polite, noble characters have elegant bodies with their heads tilting slightly forward with almond-shaped eyes and refined facial features. Destructive or mediocre characters have larger bodies, rounded facial features, and pointed teeth, like “Raksasa: Giant/Monster” (18th century) from India. Tholu Bommalata puppets are rather large, Ravana Chhaya small, Tholpavakoothu tall and opaque, and Wayang Kulit very intricate and delicate. Javanese Wayang puppets are used to tell tales of the Javanese (Majapahit) Empire and stories from the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Islamic Arabic puppets often depict gods, demons, and ancestral spirits. Shadow play in Turkey is known as Karagoz and the main characters used are called Karagoz and Hacivat. They have articulated legs, waists, and often arms with control rods that attach at right angles to the puppet. In the shadows of these puppets, one relishes in the divide between the rational and magical — it is not remarkable that magic lantern shows played a part in the evolution of the projected image that became cinema and TV, as the flickering image asserts the spiritual over the material.

Throughout history, the enigmatic interaction between light and shadow has always been hypnotic, and Asian Shadows reminds us of that. To fall into states of dreamy immersion through these puppets’ shadows is to catch a glimpse of the human fascination with art as magic.

Asian Shadows is a permanent exhibition at the Museu do Oriente (Av. Brasília Doca de Alcântara Norte, Lisbon). 

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