Exhibition | Malay Theatre

Event time: 
Wednesday, January 18, 2017 - 9:00am to Saturday, June 3, 2017 - 5:00pm
Whitney Humanities Center See map
53 Wall St.
New Haven, CT 06511
Event description: 

Intangible Cultural Heritage and Islam

curated by Kathy Foley (Wayang) with Patricia Ann Hardwick (Mak Yong)

Hours: Monday and Wednesday, 3-5 pm or by appointment. Call 203.432.0669 for appointment

Opening Reception/Meet the Curators
Thursday, February 2nd | 5 PM


Major Malay intangible cultural heritage forms include shadow puppetry wayang kelantan (formerly wayang siam) and the 2005 UNESCO recognized female dance drama mak yong. Beginning in 1991 after PAS (Partai Islam Se-Malaysia, Pan-Malayian Islamic Party) took over the government of Kelantan (1990), mak yong and wayang were banned as “un-Islamic” due to opening rituals, stories about Hindu god-heroes or local spirits, the concept of god-clowns, and other elements which were termed “syrik” (worshipping a god other than Allah).  In the same period the artists of these forms were being named Seniman Negara (National Artist)—for example puppeteer Dalang Hamzah bin Awang Hamat (1993) and mak yong actress Khatijah Awang (1999)—their arts were ironically banned in their home state of Kelantan. Noted artists migrated to Kuala Lumpur to teach in schools, albeit in a technical and secularized format.

The ban led to a precipitous decline in the traditional arts. In 1969, Amin Sweeney found 300 puppeteers active in Kelantan; in 2015 five active dalang are found. Few go through the ritual initiation (believed to make one a full artist). The only puppeteer who freely performs in the traditional ways of this Muslim Malay art is a Chinese Buddhist Dalang Eyo Hock Seng (Pak Cu), who as a non-Muslim is free to practice the art with mantras. The government advertises the genres to promote tourism—and the one place in Kelantan that the genres for a long period could be legally performed was at the tourist venue, Gelanggang Seni (Arts Complex) in Kota Bharu.  Permission to present performances to local audiences was banned due to animist and Hindu-Buddhist elements and the idea that males and females might mix and begin liaisons. The arts of wayang  (puppetry) and female dance are often traditionally credited to the Muslim teachers of the Indo-Malay world, the wali songgo (nine saints), who converted Java and some versions say Malaysia to Islam. Local traditions see links to Islamic Java. This exhibit explores the ambivalence such arts have encountered due to both modernization and the Saudi inspired “Islamic Revival” since the 1980s.  

Wayang and nang are puppet arts that share feature and cluster around the Gulf of Thailand.  Trade routes bind the Malay areas of north coast of Java, Kelantan on the east coast of Malaysia, and Southern Thailand.  Small figure puppetry, female dance drama, and trance dance genres are found in these areas. Arts probably moved along trade routes changing with local tastes.

The anti-iconic bent of Middle Eastern Islam was not part of the practice of Southeast Asian Islam, which was largely introduced from Champa, China, and areas of India. Some Shi’a influences Persia-Punjab were also found. The late 20th century Islamic revival however follows Wahabi models, which, unlike local Islam, rejects representation of the human form, calls for veiling of women, frowns on cross-gender acting (i.e., women playing men as in mak yong), bans women and men playing together in the same performance, questions mixed gender audience seating, and reject spirit beliefs and philosophies that are part of local genres.  

Acknowledgements: Mark Bauer, Whitney Humanities Center; Martin Jean, Institute of Sacred Music; Phyllis Granoff; Pat Matusky Yamaguchi; Karen Smith; Rachim bin Hamzah; PuTRA Centre for Traditional Performing arts ASWARA; Pak Nik Mustapha Nik Md Salleh; Mohd Kamanzaman Taib; Kadijah Julie Mohd Johari; Malaysia-America Commission on Educational Exchange (Fulbright); UCSC Arts Research Institute; UCSC Committee on Research, Art Division Dean’s Fund for Excellence; Asian Cultural Council (NYC); East-West Center Art Gallery

Open to: 
General Public