Rare puppets donated to museum

April 06, 2006, volume 35, no. 7
By Marianne Meadahl

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Simon Fraser University's museum of archaeology and ethnology is now home to a rare collection of antique Indonesian shadow puppets, known as wayang kulit.

The collection includes nearly 600 intricately designed and brightly painted puppets that have been kept in exceptional condition.

Research carried out by SFU international's Chris Dagg and Indonesian experts helped establish their provenance. Created by artists using buffalo skin and horns, the artworks are dated  between the 1870s and 1920s. Researchers noted the important role played by several prominent Chinese-Indonesian families in helping secure the survival of traditional Indonesian arts in the tumultuous pre-independence period.

The anonymous donor is an Indonesian immigrant of Chinese descent whose family had taken on the responsibility of securing the artwork's safe keeping.

The collection was kept in his family and his wife's family for generations and brought to Canada when they fled persecution following the alleged attempted coup of September 1965, which gave rise to the Suharto regime. His family has lived in Richmond for the past 40 years.

“The donor wants to emphasize that he is donating the collection as an expression of gratitude to Canada for the opportunities the country has given his family,” says Barbara Winter, museum curator. “They also hope that the collection can be seen and enjoyed by people here, as it was in Indonesia in better days long ago.”

Winter says given SFU's long-established support of traditional Indonesian arts, the university and its museum will be a natural home for the collection.

SFU has offered students opportunities to learn to play the gamelan, a traditional Indonesian musical instrument, through a long-standing and popular course in the school for the contemporary arts. The gamelan and wayang kulit are performed together, each complementing the other.

The collection is being catalogued with the help of volunteer students, such as Wilf Lim, who has returned to SFU after completing his bachelor of arts in archaeology.

Winter is hoping more students will join in the project. Those interested should contact her at bwinter@sfu.ca.
Winter expects the collection to become a permanent exhibition somewhere within SFU.

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