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International Focus: Snuff Puppets' Wedhus Gembel

In the wake of the deadly 2006 Pangandaran earthquake in Java, Melbourne’s Snuff Puppets travelled to the region to hold creative recovery workshops. Inspired by the experience, they returned to Indonesia several times over subsequent years, recruiting local artists for an Indo-Australian production called Wedhus Gembel.

A photo of Wedhus Gembel, The Snuff Puppets, 2014

Wedhus Gembel, The Snuff Puppets, 2014

In its first iteration, Wedhus Gembel was devised and staged at the PSBK arts centre in Yogyakarta, with ten local collaborators. Drawing inspiration from the looming shadow of Mount Merapi, an active volcano, the show explored life, death, ugliness and beauty, through puppetry, song, dance and storytelling. When The Snuff Puppet’s returned to Indonesia in 2011, they rebuilt Wedhus Gembel as a touring production, recruiting new performers in each village to contribute local folklore into the show. ‘It created an instant engagement with the people we were working with and the stories were things you would never know or hear about otherwise,’ says Snuff Puppet’s Artistic Director, Andy Freer. ‘Engaging with people in this way enriches the whole work and enriches everyone’s experience. It becomes a much broader and deeper experience.’

A photo of Wedhus Gembel, The Snuff Puppets, 2014

Wedhus Gembel, The Snuff Puppets, 2014

In 2013, The Snuff Puppets brought Wedhus Gembel to Melbourne along with six of the ten Indonesian artists that had developed the show. Among their entourage was a dalang - a master of wayang kulit or Indonesian puppet theatre, who has priest-like status in his home country. A workshop was held during this season, giving local artists the chance to learn about Indonesian mythology, storytelling and creative practice direct from their Indonesian cast members. Immediately afterwards, the Wedhus Gembel collective packed their entire production into their luggage and set off for a for three-way cultural collaboration in Peru.

For Andy Freer, the key benefits of this international partnership are creative and diplomatic. ‘We’re exporting Australian culture and Australian art and there’s a very raw, immediate cultural exchange going on,’ he says. ‘It benefits our work because we're explorers, and we’re looking for ways to push the work and push the ideas to places we never really imagined. Once you’re up there, new things become apparent and your artistic and creative landscape grows.’

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