Exhibit spotlights banned Malay artistic traditions

An opening reception for a new exhibition on Malay cultural heritage forms will be held on Thursday, Feb. 2, 5-7 p.m. at the Whitney Humanities Center (WHC), 53 Wall St.

The event will feature Kathy Foley and Patricia Ann Hardwick, curators of the exhibition “Intangible Cultural Heritage and Islam,” and a special Malay silat dance presentation by Dr. Zainal bin Abd Latiff.

“Intangible Cultural Heritage and Islam,” on view at the WHC, explores such major Malay cultural heritage forms as shadow puppetry (wayang kelantan) and the 2005 UNESCO-recognized female dance drama called mak yong. After a 1990 takeover of the government of Kelantan by PAS (Partal Islam Se-Malaysia, Pan-Malayian Islamic Party), 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. In the same period, the artists of these forms were being named national artists, even though their arts were banned in their home state of Kelantan. Noted artists migrated to Kuala Lumpur to teach in schools, albeit in a technical and secularized format. “Intangible Cultural Heritage and Islam” explores the ambivalence such arts have encountered due to both modernization and the Saudi-inspired “Islamic Revival” since the 1980s.

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 genre to promote tourism, and the one place in Kelantan that the genres for a long period could legally be produced was at a tourist venue. 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.

Wayang and nang are puppet arts that share features and cluster around the Gulf of Thailand. Trade routes bind the Malay areas of the 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.

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. The late 20th-century Islamic revival, however, follows Wahabi models, which, unlike local Islam, reject representation of the human form, call for the veiling of women, frown on cross-gender acting (i.e., women playing men as mak yong), ban women and men playing together in the same performance, question mixed-gender audience seating, and reject spirit beliefs and philosophies that are part of local genres.

The exhibit is open free to the general public. Hours are Monday and Wednesday, 3-5 p.m., or by appointment. To make an appointment, call 203-432-0669.

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Media Contact

Melissa Maier: [email protected], 203-432-3222