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A showcase of Indonesia's rich cultural past

Also on view are gold treasures, brightly colored textiles, daggers, bells, masks, batik, cast bronze, and more.

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Ethnography, anthropology, archaeology, and art rub shoulders in a major exhibition of Indonesian artifacts at the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam. Where the lines are drawn between these areas of study is happily not always clear. A startling, delightful, and typical object such as this Javanese wayang kulit, or shadow play puppet, representing Batara Brama, mythical "god of fire," can be enjoyed as art as well as history.

"Indonesia: The Discovery of the Past" continues until April 17. Its more than 300 objects, many of them never shown publicly before, have come to the Dutch capital after an initial showing in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The exhibition brings together two collections that are closely linked. Dutch colonialists in Indonesia had gathered many cultural objects, which were divided between the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden, Netherlands, and the Batavian Society in Batavia (now known as Jakarta).

The staging of the exhibition indicates impressive cooperation between two present-day institutions, Leiden's National Museum of Ethnology and the Museum Nasional Indonesia in Jakarta.

Shadow play figures were operated like moving silhouettes behind a wide, white linen cloth. Made of painted leather, with articulated joints, they were animated by the puppeteer with horn sticks. These characters were used to enact lengthy and complicated traditional dramas. Such animated sagas could continue all night and had, as it were, "a cast of thousands."

Batara Brama, for example, appears briefly in a play called "The Incarnation of Rama," a narrative of such complicated twists and turns that the dalang, or expert storyteller, must have hadremarkable knowledge and skills. He had to be actor, singer, and character manipulator. The puppets, particularly during battle scenes, twisted and turned, spun and twirled with balletic dexterity.

This shadow play figure is one of several in the combined collections now on exhibit. Also on view are major sculptures, remarkable gold treasures (some recently discovered), brightly colored textiles, daggers, bells, masks, batik, basketry, carved wood, cast bronze, and costumes made of painted tree bark - you name it.

Some artifacts were accumulated by private collectors, some by government officials. Missionaries played their part, as also did the Dutch military, claiming spoils of war. Today these "acquisitions" form a remarkable tribute to a rich cultural history.


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