Indonesian Jester Puppets, perhaps 19th c.
Indonesia, Tegal, Central Java
Wood, cloth, and mixed media
via Asian Art Museum; From the Mimi and John Herbert Collection
Jesters or clowns are among the most popular figures in the folk puppet traditions of Java, Indonesia. The rod puppets (wanage golek) — not to be confused with the more aristocratic shadow puppets (wayang kulit) — are made of brightly painted, carved wood, and are often dressed in batik clothing and bedecked with sequins and beads.
A singled puppeteer manipulates all of the puppets in a performance (most often stories from the Ramayana or Mahabarata), turning their heads and using rods to deploy their long arms, which are hinged at shoulders, elbows, and wrists, in dramatic gestures.
The appearance of jesters is keenly awaited by the audience, which delights in their antics. The jesters provide comic relief and sometimes biting social commentary. Unlike other figures, they tend to speak in the argot of the villages rather than the elevated language employed by other characters.
These puppets are on temporary loan to the Museum of Folly from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (where there is a large and constantly rotating selection of such puppets on permanent display). The Asian’s curators report that puppet performances “continue for many hours, and must not be interrupted for fear of causing disruptions in the everyday world, which the puppet world is seen as paralleling. Because the puppet theater, in addition to portraying furious battles and raucous comedy, examines the most serious issues facing society, in the old days a master puppeteer was thought to possess great spiritual power.”
Clockwise from upper left: The jesters Petruk (F2000.85.31), Togog (F2000.85.33), Semar (F2000.85.29), and Cepot (F2000.85.30).