As if by way of water, stories flow into this artist’s book by Spanish artist Diego Zapatero The Last Breath of the Prince…darkened photos seem enigmatic, evocative, traces of history, of storytelling, artistry, performance, lives unknown, costumes regal, while the faces and postures of the performers enchant. These photos show contemporary Panji mask dance dancers. Performed today in East and Central Java, and in Yogyakarta, the ancient mystic tradition is threatened with extinction.
Diego’s journey began with his taking photos a few years back of a Wayang Topeng performance. Seeking to create something meaningful, complex and layered and at the same immersive he began to connect with local communities and cultural historians. He arranged to capture these artistic performances with local groups who were in turn directed by Mbah Sugi an 82-year-old choreographer whose creative energy is apparent in each scene. The tent for the photo shot was built along with locals, the scene assembled to reflect ancient theatre.
“When the master of a craft or the keeper of the knowledge is gone, there is nothing but material traces and vague memories left behind, crumbling away with time; there is no way to recreate their deepest intangible history and state of existence. It is already too late for thousands of such cultural manifestations around the world. For the few surviving traditions, the time is now to safeguard continuous evolution and interpretation of their ancient spiritual cultural heritage.” (Diego Zapatero)
Creating Pictures of Movement and Form
“In Yogyakarta, there are only two active groups left performing the pure varieties of the “Topeng Ngamen” dance, in addition to a limited version played within the walls of the royal “Kraton “, the Sultan’s Palace. One of these two groups performs the play only once every three years now, in a ceremony to secure the steady flow of water from a sacred well in an otherwise dry environment.” (Diego Zapata)
A pianist and composer himself, the artist found himself partly inspired by a series of nineteenth and early twentieth century Dutch photo journals. Made during the colonial period, the images captivated the artist, particularly the handling of light.
To reproduce this aesthetic, Diego had his models to hold their poses, as if captured by slow shutter speeds. In the photos, the Yogyakarta dancers are shown in traditional costumes and they tell a story that has its origins in ancient, pre-Hindu creation mythologies. The characters include the sun and moon, story lines trace the rise and fall of Javanese dynasties, woven together to tell myriad tales, this story is called the Panji Cycle.
A complex admixture of allegory, metaphor, parable, art, history and performance this is a contemporary expression of an ancient culture. Diego names it The Last Breath of the Prince. an acknowledgement of its ephemeral nature, its endangered status. An edifice pushed away by the winds of time, by the modern world…
Collaborators include Narve Rio and Patrick Vanhoebrouck, a Belgian anthropologist and researcher specializing in Javanese culture and spiritual practices of kejawen-kebatinan mysticism. He helped identify current surviving groups of topeng dancers and mask makers still adhering to the pakem (traditional standard) in the DIY Province and shed light on issues of struggle and revival related to the topeng dalang existence amongst the Javanese village communities outside of Yogyakarta city. Narve Rio conducts research on Borneo and works on research and development aid projects in South, Southeast and East Asia.
The first copies of this book The Last Breath of the Prince were produced for museums, and the National Gallery of Indonesia recently acquired a copy. You may learn more about the project published on September 12, 2017 as a 122 page cloth bound hardcover book here: