Description of the Unit – Students explore the fascinating shadow puppet art form from Indonesia known as Wayang Kulit. Students then create their own shadow puppets, taking particular care to carve patterns on the puppets’ costumes using negative space.
Activity statement – Wayang (meaning “shadow” in Javanese) theater originated in Southern India and spread to Java with the arrival of Hinduism sometime between the 9th and 10th centuries.
The puppets are artfully designed out of leather, (typically buffalo hide), and manipulated by slender rods. The rods are most often attached to a puppet’s hands and head, and the puppet will have movable joints at the shoulder, elbow, and sometimes wrist, as well as a movable neck. Occasionally one or both feet will also have a rod attached, but often the legs are ignored altogether, and in fact, disproportionately short, while the arms are exaggeratedly slender and overlong. They perform behind a sheer screen, backlit so that their silhouettes grow and shrink depending on their proximity to the light source.
The puppets’ costumes are elaborately perforated such that when seen against the backlit screen, it magnifies intricate, lace-like patterns and designs.
Usually performed at night, the puppet shows tend to express moralistic stories of good and evil, and are considered both entertainment and spiritual practice.
Wayang theater has other forms as well, such as the three dimensional puppets known as Wayang Golek.
As students explore this rich cultural tradition, they are guided to focus on the beautiful, elaborate costumes, and their artistically perforated designs. They observe not only the way in which the perforations express the puppets’ features, such as eyes, but also how they imply texture, and more abstractedly, a sense of elegance and reverence. It is how negative space is used against light that creates such ornate looks among the puppets.
Students will attempt to recreate the same sense of the ornate, of the decorative, by using black card stock to perforate their own patterns and designs. They will not actually be placing these against a backlit screen; instead, we will use orange or yellow paper to pretend the puppets are being backlit and better see the perforated designs. They will also echo the disproportionate length and slim silhouette of the arms, using brass fasteners to create joints at the elbow and shoulder. Most students create two puppets as a way of imagining an interaction between the two.
Students will: Observe and form a basic understanding of Wayang Kulit puppetry, using their observations to create their own puppets with a similar level of ornate, decorative patterns and features.
Goals – Students should…
- How Wayang Kulit puppetry works
- The way in which negative space is used to elaborate a pattern or design
- What Wayang Kulit is and where it comes from
- How the puppets are manipulated
- The role that negative space plays in a puppet’s design
Be able to:
- Identify examples of Wayang Kulit and Wayang Golek
- Envision and produce fanciful designs using negative space
- Express puppets’ features via perforation
- Connect the shoulders and arms of their puppets via joints
Resources and materials –
- Images and source material for a history of Wayang Kulit
- Heavy black cardstock or Bristol board
- Bright yellow or orange construction paper
- Exacto knives
- Plastic mats
- Brass fasteners
- Thin craft sticks or coffee stirrers
- Elmer’s glue
- How are the puppets manipulated?
- What is the purpose of the screen?
- What direction is the light coming from?
- Why do you think the puppets’ costumes are carved as they are? What is the function?
- What do you think of the puppets’ faces? How do they make you feel?
- What do you think of their costumes?
- How would you express facial features on black paper?
- What might we use to attach a puppet’s elbow and shoulder joints?
- Understand the use of negative space in Wayang Kulit puppetry?
- Understand how the puppets are manipulated?
- Effectively perforate negative spaces into their puppets to express facial features as well as decorative designs in the costumes?
- Successfully create movable elbow and shoulder joints?
- Group discussion
- Oral responses to essential questions
- Classroom observations
- One finished piece
The following are examples of 8th grade students’ Wayang Kulit-style puppets. My apologies if some of these photos are out of focus. Some of these puppets were completed on campus, but others were completed while students were distance-learning during the pandemic, and sometimes their images are a bit fuzzy.