13 September 2011

The arts of survival

Posted by Jessica Ball

This summer, while I was out in New Mexico, I went to the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, which is hosted on Museum Hill, Santa Fe’s equivalent of the National Mall. As part of the festival, attendance at all of the museums was free, and I took advantage of the chance to visit a unique exhibit and hear one of the visiting folk artists speak about his work.

The Museum of International Folk Art was hosting the exhibit, entitled “The Arts of Survival: Folk Expression in the Face of Natural Disaster”; the concept behind it was to display art that came about as a result of natural disasters. In this case, four events were represented: Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the flooding in Pakistan in 2010, the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and the 2010 eruption of Merapi. Being a volcanologist, I was particularly interested in the Merapi part of the exhibit – and lucky enough to be there on a day when the artist, Tri Suwarno of Java, Indonesia, was available to speak about his volcano-inspired shadow puppets.

Tri Suwarno, an Indonesian shadow puppet artist, with his display.

Tri Suwarno is a shadow puppet maker who also had a booth at the art festival, and he gave a fascinating account of what it was like to be living near Merapi when it erupted last year. Indonesians are very well informed about volcanic hazards, and he knew a lot about the phenomena he was describing (ash fall, pyroclastic flows, and lahars), although occasionally he took a moment to remember the English equivalent of their names. (Lahar, fortunately, is the same in English and Javanese usage – that’s where we got the word.) Indonesian shadow puppet theater (known as Wayang Kulit) is a pretty fascinating medium; the puppets are created to look good casting shadows as well as in the light. (Here is a page about how the puppets are made, as well as a few examples of the performances.)

Talking about the shape of the volcano puppets.

There were three puppets on display – an older example of Merapi in eruption, one of Merapi in 2010 (complete with lahars, pyroclastic flows, lava flows, and depictions of the villages that were destroyed), and one of Mbah Maridjan, the so-called “Volcano Guardian” who was killed in the 2010 eruption.

Two volcano puppets, and the "Volcano Guardian".

One fascinating aspect of the volcano puppets was their shape. This sort of oblong shape usually represents either the tree of life (kayonan) or a holy mountain (gunungan), and serves as a backdrop for the rest of the performance. According to this site, the shape can be split, and the division can either serve as a boundary between good and evil, or a pathway between upper and lower worlds (in the case of the tree).  The volcano in the center is set up a little differently; instead of good and evil, the dividing line helps separate different types of volcanic activity (lahars on the left and pyroclastic/lava flows on the right).

I really enjoyed listening to the artist talk about how the eruption inspired him to create the puppets, but it was also pretty sobering to hear about the eruption from a first-hand witness who isn’t a scientist. It added a human element to what I was already aware of scientifically, and I was impressed by the skill with which Mr. Suwarno illustrated what he’d experienced.