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Puppets and pandemics: Creating art in the middle of a health crisis

Josa Lukman
Josa Lukman

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Thu, October 29, 2020  /  02:13 pm
Puppets and pandemics: Creating art in the middle of a health crisis

Show must go on: The opening performance of Pesta Boneka #7 is greeted by the rainy season in Yogyakarta. (

A seemingly unending global pandemic is certainly not a good time for anyone, what with the economy tanking, leading to austerity and layoffs everywhere.

With much of the world seemingly in lockdown for the better part of 2020, the precarity is certainly felt by many in the workforce.

Of course, artists are not exempt from this rule. In fact, the situation is arguably direr for them, as events and gigs have quickly dried up overnight, along with it a steady source of income.

In the Goethe-Institut’s biweekly online discussion BINGKIS, art event manager and producer Yustina Neni said many end-of-year plans for the Kedai Kebun Forum, an alternative art space she owns in Yogyakarta, had simply gone up in smoke, even those that were still ongoing when the pandemic rolled in.

“Many events, especially from July to October, were still held but at least three weeks early. Even then we had to predict what the situation would look like, whether addressing and inviting would offend or not.

“In the end, the phrase I used the most and was most effective was 'salam sehat, kita semangat' (healthy greetings, let’s be spirited),” she said.

Working together: The team behind Pesta Boneka #7 take a group picture together.Working together: The team behind Pesta Boneka #7 take a group picture together. (

Neni, a 30-year veteran in the Indonesian arts scene and a founding member of the Indonesian Arts Coalition, said that plans for the next month’s events at any time were still up in the air given the ongoing and developing situation.

“So, if we were asked about our end-of-year plans, we haven’t even considered that far ahead yet. We just have to survive through the end of the month first, then we can worry about the months ahead.”

Maria Tri Sulistyani, cofounder and artistic director of the Yogyakarta-based Papermoon Puppet Theatre, echoed her sentiments, adding that everything was much more short-term these days.

While many artists earlier this year had a yearly planner full of projects and events, herself included, marking dates on the calendar seems to be far-fetched now, as the conditions can change rapidly.

Even the Pesta Boneka (Puppet Festival), Papermoon’s international puppet biennale, felt the full force of the restrictions on travel and gatherings. 

While the festival usually hosts guests from across the world, the 7th edition that took place from Oct. 5 to 11 was an entirely virtual affair, with performances and workshops taking the form of videos freely accessible to watch at any given time.

Mind-opening: The Papermoon Puppet Theatre performs 'A Bucket of Beetles' at the 7th Pesta Boneka.Mind-opening: The Papermoon Puppet Theatre performs 'A Bucket of Beetles' at the 7th Pesta Boneka. (

“When the pandemic happened, we had just got back from Japan. Just two weeks after we self-quarantined, everything shut down. The thing going around our heads at that time was what can we do as artists?” Ria said.

“What’s interesting is that the people of Yogyakarta are seemingly used to disasters like earthquakes or eruptions, so the thinking straight away was what can we do? We reached out to people around us, asking whether they are okay physically, mentally and financially.”

Even then, Papermoon’s projects didn’t end there. She recalled a commissioned puppet that had to be flown in to the Netherlands in March, though in the end the travel plan was scrapped and the puppet kept in storage.

“Still, we kept finding opportunities to continue, taking on our role as artists to keep our collective sanity in check. We think that is one of the functions of art, so that’s what we did, from discussions on Instagram to holding performances over WhatsApp.”

Artist and curator Ika Vantiani noted the immediate shift to online platforms over the course of the pandemic, where social media has seemingly come to the rescue.

Normally, she would not consider learning social media-related skills because there was no immediate reason to, but the pandemic gave her a push to learn them quickly.

Ria also found that during the pandemic, Papermoon turned to videos, something she said was never considered before due to their focus on live performances.

“The main point of puppet theater is the live performance, which gets rarer to find by the day. That interaction is what we have championed for the past 14 years, that you have to attend a Papermoon performance in-person to fully enjoy it,” she said.

However, with the times rapidly changing, the switch to video was done as a necessity to move forward, but the troupe sought to maintain the usual intimacy of the live shows.

“What we understood was that it’s not a one-way street of the audience giving energy to the performers by showing up, but there’s a discussion following the main show that humanizes them – it’s not just talking or watching a screen.”

Still, it’s not always creating and performing all the time. Neni stressed the importance of self-love and self-care, especially in times like these.

“I think the pandemic is also a time of self-care. Washing your hands or eating healthy food is so that you’ll stay healthy and continue living. If you live, the culture continues.

“Why should we compete to create cultural events and activities? If you die, the culture also dies with you. If you stay alive and healthy, the culture continues to flourish.”


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