A culture lives on: SIUE student’s project explores Indonesian culture with puppet exhibit

Mariah Huelsmann selected a collection of Javanese puppets because their curvature, symbolic crowns and detailed sculpt do more than captivate audiences.

SIUE senior Mariah Hueslmann is creating a museum exhibit display of Javanese puppets in Peck Hall. Hueslmann is the 2016 commencement speaker for the College of Arts and Sciences. (Photo courtesy of the Anthropology Department)

SIUE senior Mariah Huelsmann is creating a museum exhibit display of Javanese puppets in Peck Hall. Huelsmann is the 2016 commencement speaker for the College of Arts and Sciences. (Photo courtesy of the Anthropology Department)

“They are so beautifully carved. They have this amazing presence,” Huelsmann said. “It’s very cool to be walking down the hallway and see these puppets staring … It’s almost like they have a spirit.”

The wooden figures’ peculiar nuances – their style of clothing, colors and expressions represent and preserve a culture, — a culture that may have been lost to time if not for these puppets.

The puppets were used in traditional Javanese plays in the Wayang Golek style that is passed down through generations. Huelsmann, a senior anthropology major from Alton, is creating a museum exhibit case with the figures for her senior project.

The three-dimensional, soft wooden rod puppets were dated from the 19th century during the Dutch occupation of Indonesia.  In Indonesian villages the Javanese puppeteers, known as a “dalang” will sit in an outdoor theatre with legs crossed for up to eight hours straight. The Javanese puppets were used in high-context productions steeped in symbolic meeting. And these plays were more than entertainment. As part of the Wayang Golek culture, the productions were used in religious education and provided a communication discourse for villagers, many of whom could not read or write. But the Javanese people could share and disseminate culture through these plays.

“That’s the way that people have their culture survive,” said Huelsmann, who will deliver the commencement speech for the College of Arts and Sciences on Saturday. “What makes up culture?  When you think of culture you think of ideology, you think of styles, you think of people who do things differently. You think of traditions you have wedding traditions, some cultures they wear white, some cultures they wear red. Why does that culture mean that? What makes that culture so unique? Theater has always been so prevalent because it ties in those color symbolism. Every culture has a different idea of color.”

Huelsmann, who hopes to become a museum curator, chose to create a two part exhibit for the yearlong project. With the help of her advisor, Professor Cory Willmott, Huelsmann selected the dolls from the University Museum last summer. Using an online database from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology, she did comparative analysis to determine the identity of the dolls. She also had to map out and determine the dimensions of her display which will be split into two scenes, each from the popular Indian epic, “the Mahabharata.”

The first scene will feature the story’s main protagonist, Arjuna was a popular hero and warrior in Indian fiction who was also skilled using the bow and arrow. In the second scene, Huelsmann will create a scene from a subplot of the story featuring the characters “Gatotkaca” a grotesque, blue faced mystical character and the cousin of Arjuna who works for the forces of good; Boma, is an evil, ill-fated character and Sengkuni, an evil minister.

Huelsmann will help preserve the Wayang Golek culture further when she completes her exhibit, which is scheduled to remain on display in Peck Hall for about two years. She will also complete her virtual exhibit that features detailed photos and additional information this week.

The story of the Mahabharata is steeped in subtle symbolism that distinguishes the production from Western plays. Each character has a latent meaning and provides examples of what it means to be good and evil.

“They’re going understand all the symbolism and symbolic nuances that outsiders wouldn’t understand,” Huelsmann said. “It’s kind of we like we know baseball here in the U.S. And everyone knows the nuances of baseball; it’s a big fan thing … These plays with the puppets are like baseball to the Javanese people it’s so pervasive in their culture they go to these plays all the time … They’ll watch them and learn lessons and that’s the theatricality part of it you have this big way in villages where not everyone is literate and you have this way to present to them famous stories that’s entertaining and teaches them moral lessons for people who won’t be reading stories.”

The productions were popular entertainment and another means of communicating ideas for illiterate people. The plays were also used by the ruling government as forms to disseminate propaganda messages.

In the fall, Huelsmann will attend the University of Missouri-St. Louis where she will enter the two year History/Museum Studies program at University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL). She also has a Graduate Research Assistantship through the Missouri Botanical Gardens. She will conduct biocultural research under the guidance of the senior curator, Dr. Jan Salick, where Huelsman will make thematic storyline exhibits and study on how various cultures use plant life in cultural artifacts including maps, clothes, maps and carvings.

“It’s kind of a new field where they’re taking cultures and seeing what they use natural materials to make,” Huelsmann said.


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