Southeast Asia Studies Seminar Program
The MacMillan Center at Yale University
Oct 17, 2012

Visualizing the Cirebon Mask through the Zahir / Batin Matrix
Laurie Margot Ross, SSRC Transregional Research Postoctoral Fellow and Southeast Asia Program Visiting Fellow, Cornell University

The late folklorist Alan Dundes lamented a popular misconception about the trajectory of elite arts in South and Southeast Asia. While acknowledging that borrowing occurs between elite, popular, and folk artists, he stressed "the direction of transmission is almost always from the folk to the popular/mass or the élite, rather than the other way around." Topeng Cirebon, a virtuosic mask form from Java's northwest coast, whose stars are day laborers who trace their lineage to a Sufi saint, is often presumed to have a similar trajectory. Their participation in one of the oldest extant performance modalities in the Malay world suggests more is here than meets the eye. It is, in fact, the eye that I wish to invoke in this talk, metaphorically and representationally, by looking thoughtfully at the Cirebon mask-a piece of lifeless matter frozen in its expression that is brought to life when placed over the human face. In it, two opposing worlds exist tangent to each other: the outer visage viewed by the audience; and the inner one, a mystery known only to its wearer. The audience responds to an expressive face, but for these pedigreed dancers, emotional and spiritual content is accessed through the inner face. A variety of amulets executed on the verso of some masks delineate the flexibility of these artists from the margin in adapting to the needs of the day. With the opening of the Suez Canal (1869), more Javanese Muslims performed the haj than ever before. Upon their return home, freshly minted hajis traveled the countryside interpreting the Quran and teaching basic Arabic to village scribes. This paper shows that the blending of Arabic with older, indigenous amulets was an original synthesis of Islam that elegantly bridged the form's outer (zahir) and inner (batin) dimensions.

Laurie Margot Ross is currently an SSRC Transregional Research Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Fellow at the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University. Her interests focus on cultural and religious exchange in the Indian Ocean region, emphasizing Indonesia. She is particularly attentive to the localization of mystical Islam (Sufism) there, through the study of its visual culture and performance. She earned her doctorate in South and Southeast Asian Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and her M.A. in Performance Studies from New York University. Her current project is a book manuscript related to this talk that situates masks and their use in Cirebon as an important contribution to Islamic art, where they function as conduits for working through local issues not addressed in the Quran and hadith. Recent publications include Indonesia and the Malay World and Asian Theatre Journal. Her essay, "Performing Piety from the Inside Out: Fashioning Gender and Public Space in a Mask 'Tradition' from Java's Northwest Coast" will appear in Performance, Popular Culture, and Piety in Muslim Southeast Asia, edited by Timothy P. Daniels, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013.


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