The Dr. Walter Angst and Sir Henry Angest Collection of Indonesian Puppets

The Dr. Walter Angst and Sir Henry Angest Collection of Indonesian Puppets

A major collection comes to the Yale University Art Gallery

Ruth Barnes, the inaugural Thomas Jaffe Curator of Indo-Pacific Art, is pleased to announce that Yale University Art Gallery recently received the largest collection of Indonesian puppets and related material ever given to a collecting institution: 166 complete sets of wayang puppets from Java, Bali and Lombok are coming as a donation to the Gallery. Each set has between 50 and 250 individual puppets. The exact number still needs to be assessed, but it is likely to exceed 20,000. There are two main groups, wayang kulit (kulit = Indonesian/Javanese for ‘skin, hide’), which are played in the famous shadow puppet performances, and wayang golek (three-dimensional puppets with wooden heads and arms and stick bodies covered by clothing), used in open stage narrative enactments. A small third group consists of flat wooden puppets (wayang klitik). Sweeping in scope, the collection contains all elements needed to perform complete narratives such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata stories and represents regional iconographic variations found throughout western Indonesia. Bringing the collection to Yale University immediately creates the potential for a center for cultural and academic research related to wayang, which is at the core of Western Indonesian cultures. The collection will become a draw for scholarly research and heritage preservation of one of Indonesia’s most cherished performance traditions.

The collection was assembled by the Swiss primatologist Dr. Walter Angst who became interested in wayang while he was living in Java in the 1970s. His collecting practice bears the imprint of his scientific background, as he brought together complete “sets”, needed to perform complex stories drawn from Indian myth, indigenous stories, as well as stories from Islamic and Chinese backgrounds.

Walter Angst died in 2014, and his brother Sir Henry Angest inherited the collection. He decided to donate it in its entirety to the Yale University Art Gallery in 2016, where it will become part of the Department of Indo-Pacific Art. The Gallery will administer the collection, but it should be widely accessible to the Yale community and beyond, as desired by both the collector and the donor.

While the collection has an intrinsic artistic value, the Gallery wishes to explore the broader aspects of Indonesian puppetry and use the collection to spark dialogue not only within the museum, but among colleagues at Yale and other scholarly institutions. It is also planned to establish links with Indonesian academic and cultural centers that have an interest in the collection and its relevance to their heritage. First steps in this direction have already been undertaken, as Yale has invited the Sultan of Yogyakarta, who is a major supporter of Javanese performance arts, to celebrate the collection’s donation in the fall of 2018.

Matthew Isaac Cohen, joined the Yale Gallery from September to December of 2017, as a Senior Visiting Fellow in the Indo-Pacific department, working with Dr. Barnes to study and curate the collection, and returned to Yale in 2018-19 as a Fellow at the Institute of Sacred Music.  Professor Cohen studied wayang kulit in the puppetry department of the conservatoire Institut Seni Indonesia Surakarta in Indonesia, received a PhD in anthropology from Yale University, was a postdoctoral research fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies in The Netherlands and taught at the University of Glasgow before becoming Professor of International Theater, Royal Holloway, University of London in 2005, and Director of Royal Holloway’s Centre for Asian Theatre and Dance. 

In Fall 2019, Professor Cohen returned to Connecticut as a Professor in the School of Fine Arts, Department of Dramatic Arts, University of Connecticut, and joined Yale as an Affiliate of the Council on Southeast Asia Studies.