Ratu Kidul

I recently saw Karen Strassler present a paper at Cornell University, a work in progress she titled “The Aura of Power:  Ratu Kidul’s Photographic Appearances.”

Ratu Kidul is a deity or spirit in Javanese and Sudanese mythology.  She resides in the Southern Sea of Java, often sighted near Parangtritis, a famous beach outside of Yogyakarta.  Ratu Kidul is described with many powers – she is a shape-shifter, a protector, and possesses a divine and royal sexuality (she is a famed lover of the Javanese Sultanate).

I recently gave a short lecture about my own photographs at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and in this talk, I mentioned my interests in Indonesia and the arts and cultural of the nation.

I showed a few pictures by Wimo Ambala Bayang, a Javanese photographer I find interesting.  I showed one picture from his series High Hopes.

It’s a picture of a young woman, resting casually and perhaps seductively on a sandy beach (presumably Parangtritis), with her head and face covered with a white, fluffy mask or stocking (with the series title High Hopes, it’s easy to assume this is meant to represent a head lost in the clouds).  This photograph always seemed to be about Islam and women, but giving my talk the other day, I made a connection with Karen Strassler’s paper, and now see a connection with Ratu Kidul as well.  So really this picture is more complicated than I originally thought, referencing several layers of Javanese history, the animistic deitty of sexual fecundity and the repressive roles of women in conservative Muslim cultures.


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