Nowadays, I think we are in a “decisive moment” as modernity, technology is reaching everywhere, often a process associated with loss of identity and traditions. In South Asia we are in a crucial moment where this loss is happening, unfortunately forcing the last opportunity to see something that will not be present any longer in the coming 10 or 20 years.
My passion for the masks started a long time ago, when I was I kid I was used to see all the material from my father´s expeditions into the Amazon, amongst them a big collection of the Yanomami tribe artefacts, blowpipes, arches and also including masks. First time I saw a “wayang topeng” (masked dance) performance was already 3 years ago, I took one of the most representative photos of my work. At that time I didn ́t realize how complex this Javanese art really was.
With time I started a survey on the topic until I found a large collection of Dutch journals, ranging from the late 19th century to the early part of the 20th century. I came upon photos taken during the colonial period; in old studios with a technique modern photographers don not use anymore. That truly woke an inner feeling within, I had never come across such a thing in those days, and it convinced me that maybe it could be the right moment to start a project out of it. Concerning the topengs, I had already seen exhibitions of masks before, as a material thing, as a souvenir, but I thought why not pay tribute to those who are behind them? It is auniversal issue, a performer loses his previous identity and assumes a new one, letting go of his own will, which now becomes subservient to that of the personage of the mask. Each time it is precisely then that something important occurs on stage.
On this occasion, the whole thing was closer to a movie shooting than a photographic one, from the design of theatre backgrounds based in old motifs, carpets, and the fact that I had to build a large tent structure with the villagers for the shooting. That was an amazing experience, sharing with them the real Javanese life, and feeling their inherent sense of hospitality. They were really enthusiastic and they highly appreciated the fact that a foreigner wanted to make such a big thing out of an almost extinct art. They understood very well and they were very collaborative at every crucial moment.
I will always remember how happy the dance trainer was at that time, an old man, 82 years of age and going by the name of “Mbah Sugi”. At our first meeting he was rather suspicious and he pretended not to pay too much attention. Then, during the next meetings, when I assigned him the position of the director, feeling free to create the scenes, this seemed to make him happy and enthusiastic again like in older times. That was very intense for me, and maybe one of the aims of the project was just that.
Masked dances in Malaysian Borneo had already disappeared, and it required a timely deep research from old books, as well as from museum materials. I was really lucky to find some of these dancers, from the Iban tribe in Sarawak, and the Bahau tribe in the Indonesian Borneo. This topeng project is more related to fine arts than previous ones, more personal, focusing on portraits, more than ever before. The reason behind it is that to get the feeling of old photos, I made a research, using the same techniques as the old photographers, and discovering how they managed the light was one of the keys. To create that specific feeling, most of the otherwise moving models were made to pose as required by the slow shutter speed.