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eight-ball

For Christmas of 2011, celebrity chef and international gadabout Anthony Bourdain hired me to make child murder puppets!

Argh! Anthony Bourdain!

Argh! Anthony Bourdain!

Well, maybe I’m overstating it a bit. Actually a film-maker friend who works for Anthony Bourdain commissioned me to make two naughty children puppets and a walking Santa figurine for a stop-motion animated segment which was supposed to air on Bourdain’s Christmas special. I didn’t even make any eyes or mouths—as these were animated in post-production.

The real hero of the piece was the Alpine winter demon Krampus—an ancient horned god who rips disobedient and willful children into pieces (in stark opposition to Santa, who anonymously (?) gives good children toys and treats). Not only is Krampus a wicked psychopath, he is also all furry, pointy, and gross-looking. Yet evidently the wicked monster strikes a chord with people, because our December 8th 2011 post about Krampus was the eighth most popular post ever. I guess the celebrity tie-in might have helped out. Plus you can still watch the chilling animation of my puppets being murdered by Krampus on Youtube (even if studio heads cut the disturbing segment from the final TV show).

Argh! Krampus!

Argh! Krampus!

I counted Krampus as one of the “Deities of the Underworld” since he is an immortal god of darkness, cold, and murder. However he is not at all the last dark chthonic entity on the top ten list of Ferrebeekeeper posts! People really love evil gods! What is a bit sad is that Santa Claus did not come anywhere near the top ten list–even though I wrote a series of posts about his bizarre seventeen hundred year journey from obscure dead bishop to the third (or maybe fourth) most popular deity in the Christian faith. Plus Santa is compassionate and generous—although he wasn’t always that way. Anyway—if you have followed the story carefully you will note that I actually made a Santa puppet not a creepy Krampus.

Santa, with horsewhip toasting a multi-billion dollar corporation...

Santa, with horsewhip toasting a multi-billion dollar corporation…

Also a note to Anthony Bourdain (or anyone else with money): I am still available to make puppets and sculptures to demand.

AfricaAngola

We have bogged down somewhat in our trip across Sub-Saharan Africa. After starting in Madagascar, crossing the channel to Mozambique, winding our way through Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia, we got lost in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s time we resume the trip and push on west to Angola. Like The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola is tremendously rich in mineral wealth (plus the Angolan people are notable for their great physical beauty!), but also like the Congo, Angola has suffered greatly from exploitation, greed, and long decades of bitter war. First there was war between the Portuguese colonialists and those who sought a free Angola. When the struggle for independence ended in 1975, the “liberators” fought a brutal war with each other over who would control and exploit the populace. This war became a proxy war for the Soviet Union and the United States. After the Soviet Union fell, the Angolan civil war became entangled in the greater Congolese war of the 1990s.

Flag of Angola

Flag of Angola

As you can tell, despite all of its beauty, wealth, and magnificence, Angola has been a sad and divided land for the last four decades. Yet, of course there is much more to the country than just fighting (and I’ll describe some of its culture and biodiversity next week), but I am going to finish this introduction to Angola with the story of its rather horrible flag. Naturally this story involves another fight! The flag of Angola, as you can clearly see, represents its long status as the puppet of the Soviet bloc. The red represents the endless blood which must be spilled to make a perfect communist state and the black represents the people of Angola. The broken gear represents unfulfilled aspirations of industry. The machete speaks for itself. Finally, the gold star represents Angolan obeisance to Soviet ideals (indeed the shattered gear and the genocidaire’s machete are meant to evoke the hammer and sickle). This flag was the flag of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, the dominant faction of the three factions during the long internecine civil war.

 

Proposed Flag of Angola (2003)

Proposed Flag of Angola (2003)

When the war ended in 2002 and Angola finally began to try to repair the terrible damages done to its citizens, its infrastructure, and its society, some people looked askance at the flag. In 2003, the Parliament’s Constitutional Commission of the National Assembly gently recommended the adoption of a new “more optimistic” flag which features brighter colors and a solar design based on ancient petroglyphs. Unfortunately, the resolution was not taken up, so Angola maintains its violent, scary, and anachronistic national colors–although there is no disputing that the flag is visually and historically interesting (and not a little bad-ass).

Behind the Screen at a Wayang Performance

Behind the Screen at a Wayang Performance

Wayang theatre—Indonesian shadow puppet theatre–is the traditional art form by which epic drama is presented in Indonesia. Years ago I had the immense fortune to watch a wayang drama presented by a master puppeteer at the University of Chicago and the experience was quite extraordinary. In wayang theatre there are many layers of verisimilitude built into the varying levels of theatrical artifice (and into the elaborate & hypnotic music). The shadow puppet stage can be approached from both sides. On the shadow side (which faces the audience) is the cinematic drama of nations, heroes, monsters, maidens, and wise-cracking dwarves. On the other side, behind the screen is the puppeteer himself moving sticks, pulling strings, voicing dozens of characters, and directly animating the whole enterprise. Viewers are encouraged to view both sides since the shifting perspective enhances the enjoyment of the drama. Not only are the puppets beautifully painted and the gamelan orchestra instruments (and musicians) ornate, but thinking about the machinations behind the art provides larger lesson about politics, human affairs, and life.

 

A Niwatakawaca Shadow puppet

A Niwatakawaca Shadow puppet

The master puppeteer was a wizened Javanese sage. He took one look at the audience of American lay-people who were unfamiliar with the George R. R. Martin-esque backstories behind Indonesian epics (to say nothing of 6 syllable Sanskrit names) and his face fell. Nonetheless with a flourish of cymbals and gongs he leapt to his craft. In a mere 5 hours he had explained an incredibly elaborate story, cracked a number of hilarious topical jokes, staged a vast battle, and wrapped everything up in a happy ending (traditional performances can go on for days). Unfortunately he had to take some shortcuts so that we didn’t become hopelessly lost. One of these was the name of the main antagonist. In the Arjunawiwāha, the principle antagonist is an asura (demon) named Niwatakawaca. This nomenclature was clearly not going to fly with the Chicago audience, so the puppeteer made Niwatakawaca into “the flower ogre”.

Niwatakawaca harasses Apsaras in his pleasure garden

Niwatakawaca harasses Apsaras in his pleasure garden

Niwatakawaca (aka the flower ogre) is a powerful wicked spirit who disturbs the cosmic harmony and shamefully harasses the pulchritudinous apsaras. As you can see from the above pictures he is a very hedonistic demon (although not without his own love of refinement and aesthetics). I particularly like the picture above which makes him seem exactly like an ogre who loves flowers and beautiful gardens. I suspect the flower ogre represents a lack of self-discipline–but since that is my personal demon as well, I am going to pretend he is just a supernatural monster. In the end of the epic Arjuna, the archer hero must fight the flower ogre in a great epic battle. When I saw the Arjunawiwāha performed, the battle was extraordinary (particularly considering it was all deft puppetry by one man). Flights of arrows were launched. Forests burned and great hosts were slain. Finally Arjuna gained the upper hand. The hero bodily grabbed the recalcitrant demon and hurled him out of the universe. Since this was puppet theatre, it meant that the ogre wayang flew completely out from behind the screen and flipped end over end into the lap of a startled Asian civilization professor. It was one of the best finales I have ever seen in anything anywhere and provided a very fitting end to the flower ogre.

Gamelan Orchestra

Gamelan Orchestra

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