A celebration of puppets has come to the Museum of the City of New York, where A-lists like Oscar the Grouch and the original Howdy Doody are rubbing shoulders with their more cruel cousins, including the perverted Trekkie Monster of Avenue Q to the ubiquitous trickster Punch of Punch and Judy, both of which trace their origins to 16th-century Italy.
But whether they come from a subway bus or the stage on Broadway’s Lions King, each of the more than 60 puppets included in “Puppets of New York”, are distinctly New York creations.
“Dolls have migrated with their communities. When people need to flee a place, they usually have dolls with them,” exhibition curator Monxo López told Artnet News. “I felt it was important to show how dolls make up a part. of the diasporic lattice between the communities that have made New York City their home while keeping in touch with their ancestral homelands. “
Chinese shadow puppets and puppets on a large scale from lunar New Year celebrations in contrast to Czech puppets from the 1820s – the oldest dated works in the show – from the old Czech quarter on the Upper East Side. From the beginning, dolls also had a distinctly dingy side: The earliest records of dolls in New York come from police records documenting the arrest of pan dealers and the confiscation of their dolls.
The show highlights the enduring influence of New York City’s puppets, such as the Muppets of Sesame Street, which is both set (and filmed) in the city.
“Jim Henson used to eat lunch in this [New York] The pub and waiter were extremely rude – and that’s Oscar the Grouch. And he modeled the voice of a Bronx taxi driver with a unique accent, ”López said. “Growing up all over the world means you grew up with New York dolls.”
Then there’s Greed, a life-size doll costume created by Ralph Lee for the annual Village Halloween Parade in 1976. “Ralph Lee is a genius. He makes these big, intricate, really really hot and organic dolls,” said López. are works of art. “
But López also sought to look beyond the accepted canon of New York puppets, such as the great Tony Sarg, who used his puppetry to develop the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons in 1928, and his protégé Bil Baird, who designed the puppets. for the film The sound of music.
“The usual story of puppetry in New York City is rooted around white men, surprise surprise,” López said. “I wanted to lift the contributions of women from queer people, black people, latinx people, Chinese … The exhibition is about exploring the deep unknown textures of the puppet theater’s ecosystem in the city and its diversity history.”
The show includes a Diana Ross-inspired puppet by Bruce Cannon, a black puppeteer who has been the artistic director of the city-run Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater in Central Park since 1997.
“As I went through the pandemic and experienced the trauma that underlined the Black Lives Matter movement, I thought we needed to continue to reinforce the message of inclusion and the contributions and the joy that color communities have offered the city,” he added. López. “This is a way to elevate that message from a very different frequency.”
More overtly acknowledging problems with racism is the Black Lives Matter theme by Nehprii Amenii, which López describes as “very avant-garde.” The show includes video and sculptural works from her multimedia performance installation Food for the gods (2018), performed at New York’s La MaMa Experimental Theater Club.
Amennis’ work is linked to a long history of puppetry and freedom of speech.
“Dolls have the right to reveal things and reveal things by playing fools or playing rogue, just like Punch and Judy do,” López said. “Their cuteness and the fact that they are truly inanimate objects allow them to speak the truth to power without facing the serious consequences that people would face, especially under authoritarian regimes. That is the root of why puppetry had survived and thrived for so long. “
“Puppets of New York” can be seen at the Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue on East 103rd Street, August 13, 2021 – April 3, 2022. “Cocktails and Culture: Halloween Masquerade Party” is October 29, 6 p.m. , free with museum entrance.
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