Strings and Things
The art of puppetry
What: "Shadows, Strings and Other Things"
Where: Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, BC
WHEN: Through Oct. 14
Cost: Entry is $13-$18CA
Wednesday, June 26, 2019
Creating dramatic performances using both human and animal images has been a part of the experience of homo sapiens for thousands of years.
“Shadows, Strings and Other Things: The Enchanting Theatre of Puppets,” a thrilling exhibit currently on display at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, BC, displays more than 250 puppets both old and new from 15 countries in Asia and Europe, along with puppetry’s modern incarnation, stop-motion animation.
The storytelling-focused exhibit divides into small theaters where visitors can watch films of performances from Java, Vietnam, China, Portugal, Brazil, Sicily, the United Kingdom, France, and, yes, Canada.
Attendees can also observe artisans making Chinese shadow puppets with products such as ox hides scraped to transparency, filigreed and brightly painted to represent generals, ladies and kings from classic texts. Shadow puppeteers from Java perform stories from the Hindu epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata—accompanied by gamelan music, narration and song.
Meanwhile, the marionette theatre of Sicily and Naples recreates similar themes such as Charlemagne and his noble knights defending Christendom. Each half-life-sized puppet is itself a work of art.
In another room, a video shows Vietnamese water puppets that “swim” in ponds controlled by hidden rods. As musicians and singers accompany the show, a floating clown beats a drum and a swimming dragon squirts water, smoke and fire.
Among indigenous Americans, the Kwakwaka’wakwa of British Columbia were famous for their spectacular potlatch ceremonies until Christian-biased authorities suppressed them because they had dramatized cultural teachings with tales of the supernatural. Women of inherited power and position manipulated the treasured puppets. You’ll learn more by watching human figures popping from boxes, crabs crawling across the floor, and luminous winged figures flying through the dimly lit longhouse.
Their favorite figure is Raven, the divine trickster, who brings misfortune and blessings alike to the tribe. The beautiful and frightening raven puppet on display was made by Beau Dick as a treasure for the 1982 potlatch revival, which took place once prohibitions were lifted.
I was deeply moved by the cutting-edge work of Amanda Strong, a filmmaker based in Vancouver who has gained international recognition for her animated films. Her visual poetry enables viewers to experience through the eyes of an indigenous person the destruction of wildlife and the tragic loss of the Native way of life.
Strong’s 2018 stop-motion animation film Biidaaban (The Dawn Comes) tells the modern tale of a gender-fluid youth who partners with a 10,000-year-old shapeshifter to revive the ancestral practice of harvesting maple sap—now from trees in the suburbs. Her powerful Four Faces of the Moon reveals nonchalant passengers thoughtlessly slaughtering bison from a railway carriage as the bison spirits fade away.
Strong’s video work makes us face the Western indifference to the destruction of an ecosystem that had sustained Native cultures since time began. Like many facets of “Shadows, Strings and Other Things,” the powerful images pack a punch, and won’t soon be forgotten.
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