The Artists Behind Wayang, Bali’s Traditional Shadow Puppets

February 18, 2015 Phil Meadows

On our June 2014 trip to Bali, traveler Jonette Kuykendall photographed Gustai Aji, a wayang kulit artist at the Astina Gallery in Mas, Ubud (photo below). Jonette recalled of her time visiting the artist,

During our visit we were able to watch the artists work on their projects. This man quietly sat and worked on his puppets and granted me permission to photograph him. Creating is an intimate part of an artists process and I was allowed to not only watch, but interact with them while he worked. Mom and I brought home several of the carvings from the Astina Gallery. I look at them daily and remember my visit and look forward to my return with my entire family. It is my dream to take them everywhere I went and let them meet everyone I met. My time in Bali was life changing. When asked to describe my time in Bali, my answer is always the same. I found peace.

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Originating on the island of Java and Bali, wayang is an ancient form of storytelling through shadow puppetry. Visually striking, it relies on the meticulous craftsmanship of the puppet itself. Intricately detailed forms careen across a backlit cotton screen while the contrast of light and dark grants a further dimension then perhaps meets the eye.

Though there are different styles of wayang, the flat puppets, wayang kulit, are the most well known puppets of the Indonesian tradition. Kulit meaning skin, refers to its leather construction, carefully chiseled with very fine tools and supported with carefully shaped buffalo horn handles and control rods.

With a melody of characters as numerous as stars in the sky, the waylang kulit stories draw from the Hindu epics- the Ramayana, the Mahabharata or from the Serat Menak.

Craftsmanship of the highest quality takes weeks to create, employing the artistic abilities of not just one individual but several crafters working together. The artists start from a master model which need to be traced onto leather. The abstract leather figures are then smoothed with a glass bottle and primed to be painted. After another round of smoothing, the moveable arms and legs are mounted onto the body. A group of artists can generally make up to 10 wayang kulit at a time over the course of a week.

Bali is a destination close to the heart of Cross Cultural Journeys. We have been traveling to visit these artists and the Balinese people for decades. Visit these crafters and many more on our June 2015 trip to Bali.