'A Scene of Topeng Ngamen' (2014) by Spanish photographer Diego Zapatero, part of 'The Last Breath of the Prince' exhibition at National Gallery of Indonesia in Jakarta. (Photo courtesy of Diego Zapatero)

Spanish Photographer Documents Java's Last-Surviving Masked Dancers


JULY 17, 2018

Jakarta. Last weekend at the National Gallery of Indonesia in Cikini, Central Jakarta, what looked like old photos of wayang topeng – masked dance – actors in a production of Javanese "Cerita Panji," or "Panji Tales," were hanging on the wall. The photos have an early last century vibe to them, but look closer, they were actually taken much more recently.

The photographs were part of an exhibition called "The Last Breath of the Prince" by Yogyakarta-based Spanish photographer Diego Zapatero.

Zapatero has lived in the central Javanese court city since 2010 and his project to document some of the last-surviving wayang topeng troupes in the country began with a chance encounter with the beautiful, intricately carved masks themselves.

Zapatero arrived in Yogyakarta on a two-month assignment to report on the Mount Merapi eruption in October 2010. He was touring the city on his off days when he stumbled upon a shop selling traditional Javanese masks.

"I asked the [shop] owner what the masks were for. He said they were for wayang topeng performances, but no one was doing them anymore," Zapatero said on Tuesday (10/07).

Once his Merapi assignment was over, Zapatero applied for a scholarship to study "visualization of human stories and Indonesian cultural heritage" at the Indonesian Institute of the Arts (ISI) in Yogyakarta.

Zapatero's early research into wayang topeng led him to Dutch colonial archives kept at Leiden University's Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies.

There he found one of his main sources and inspiration: Kassian Cephas, one of the first Indonesian photographers who worked for the Yogyakarta royal palace (keraton).

Zapatero then met Belgian anthropologist Patrick Vanhoebrouck, who had been living in Yogyakarta for a while longer, and had also been studying the distinctive wayang topeng masks.

Vanhoebrouck introduced Zapatero to three wayang topeng troupes who were still clinging on to the art form. Two in Karangduwet and Bobung villages in Yogyakarta's Wonosari district, and another one in Kasongan, a village in Bantul.

Zapatero – who did not speak Javanese – said he met Mbah (Grandpa) Sugi, the choreographer of the Karangduwet troupe, who initially was "rather suspicious and pretended not to pay too much attention to me."

But the Spaniard persisted and after a while managed to persuade Mbah Sugi to direct a few scenes featuring his masked dance actors for him to photograph.

After a few of these photo sessions, Mbak Sugi actually took a liking to Zapatero.

"Mbah Sugi’s already 85 years old. He’s like my father now. In visual anthropology, you just have to spend a lot of time in the field [with your subject], so at the end they become like family," Zapatero said.

'Bolo Bantarangin' by Diego Zapatero. The photo shows actors playing as soldiers of Prabu Klono, the enemy of Inu Kertapati, in Javanese Panji stories. (Photo courtesy of Diego Zapatero)

It took Zapatero two years to complete his visual documentary project, visiting the troupes every few months.

The photographer had to design and make the wallpapers for the photo shoots, build a tent studio and figure out the ideal lighting to achieve a vintage look for his photos.

The exhibition shows mostly photos of scenes taken from the Panji tales – a royal love story between Raden Inu Kertapati and Dewi Sekartaji, set in 13th-century Java.

In the story, Inu Kertapati, whose wayang topeng name is Panji Asmara Bangun, must defeat his rival, the evil king Prabu Klono, to win Sekartaji's hands.

Zapatero showed portraits of the characters with descriptions of their roles in the Panji story in the exhibition. Also on display were his mask collection, his drawings of the masks and more drawings showing his methods of photographing the masked dancers.

Hanuman from the Hindu epic Ramayana makes an appearance as an ally of Inu Kertapati in the Panji tales. (Photo courtesy of Diego Zapatero)

A Dying Art

The Panji tales were entered into UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in October last year, but the wayang topeng groups performing them haven’t had as much luck.

Since the 16th century, traveling groups called "topeng ngamen" ("masked buskers") have been performing wayang topeng in towns and villages all over Java.

A handful of these groups still exist, but all are on their "last breath," so to speak.

The Spanish photographer said he wanted his exhibition to raise awareness about the importance of safeguarding old traditions and values.

He deliberately made the photos look old to evoke a nostalgia for the past.

Before the exhibition at the National Gallery – which ended last weekend on July 15 – Zapatero had also exhibited the photos in Yogyakarta, Spain, Taiwan and at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, when Indonesia was the guest of honor.

Zapatero said the public reaction to his photos has been positive. He hopes the attention can translate to real assistance for the dancing troupes.

According to the photographer, the government has made some contact with the troupes and has already declared Bobung a tourist village.

"They [the masked dancers] are not dying. But they need the kids to get involved again, someone to pass the baton to. The problem is, you can't make a living from dancing anymore," Zapatero said.

The Last Breath of the Prince was held in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of the Spain-Indonesia diplomatic relations and the International Panji Festival 2018, held in 8 cities in Indonesia from June 27 to July 13.