I recently awoke from anesthesia with the persistent idea that I must make a rabbit puppet from men’s shirts from Goodwill. I worked from mid-morning to night and voilà!
The next day I happened to come across Chacay Burial Dolls. (My bunny puppet is way too cute, I decided.)
Originally, Chacay Burial Dolls were placed in the graves of the dead 1,000-1,400 years ago in Peru. Today, indigenous women emulate these ancient burial dolls by making their own dolls out of ragged pieces of textiles looted from Pre-Columbian gravesites.
There are only speculations on what the ancient models were meant to represent. Were they depictions of the deceased? Or were they meant to be companions or protectors in the afterlife?
The burial dolls’ bodies and heads are composed of reed or other kinds of natural fiber; their tunic-like robes from fabric layers are held together with yarn and large stitches. String and bandanas hold together “hair.” Sometimes the figures cradle a baby or a musical instrument.
The way contemporary women recycle fabric and keep tradition alive via ancient textile fragments is fascinating. Maggie Ordon, curator of history for the Montana Historical Society, explains that the act of looting gravesites to recycle traditional fabric and turn it into dolls brings up a host of questions: “How do these dolls fit into the larger question of cultural property, Peru’s national claim to ownership of ethnological materials in the country, the rights of the indigenous population, and the relationship of tourists and museums to these objects and people?”
Completely different yet related in that they are wild-looking and made from used fabric, the dolls of Bauhaus artist Paul Klee look brutal almost and definitely dead. They have big teeth and heavy clown makeup. It’s hard to believe that his little son, for whom Klee made the dolls between 1916 and 1925, wasn’t haunted by these dolls in his sleep. A skeleton in a white linen robe; a ghost in a ribbed yellow dress; an angry creature with horns and patched scarf and brown cloak. (This Flickr gallery of Klee’s puppets is excellent!)
Around the same time as Klee, Dadaists Emmy Hennings and Hannah Höch were creating their own puppets. Compared to Klee’s, Höch’s puppets are sweet looking and nimble almost. But their long skinny limbs are disproportionate to the rest of their bodies. Forced to balance their tiny wooden heads on small muscular rumps, Höch’s puppets often wear short and sphere-like skirts that surround their bottoms like an umbrella. A carefully designed fabric blouse only partially obscures their small round breasts.
I’m not sure if I will follow Höch, Hennings and Klee down the puppetry path. Although I have to admit, I have already taken the first few steps. First the bunny puppet, and now… I’ve been spending a lot of time with the pigeons at the Wild Bird Center in Manhattan lately. I just couldn’t help myself. C’mon guys! Who can say no to a scruffy pigeon in a suit???