Project Tobong

Project Tobong is a collaborative project led by Helen Marshall with Indonesian artist Risang Yuwono and supported by Arts Council England and the British Council. It revolves around the Ketoprak Tobong Kelana Bakti Budaya, one of the last remaining nomadic theatre troupes currently based in Yogyakarta, Java.

Challenging conventional forms of social documentary, Project Tobong seeks to preserve and reinvigorate the ritual of historic storytelling and performance. Helen Marshall and Risang Yuwono worked with the Ketoprak Tobong Kelana Bakti Budaya, one of the few remaining ‘Ketoprak’ theatre troupes in Indonesia. This community of travelling players performs traditional musical dramas through spoken soliloquy, dialogue and singing, using as their stage the ‘tobong’ – a portable bamboo structure. The stories are drawn from Javanese history and romances, and are performed in costumes evocative of those worn by legendary figures from centuries gone by.

With the spread of modern media and with transnational styles and content in performance gaining in popularity, interest in traditional storytelling has been eroded, and audiences for Ketoprak are dwindling. Project Tobong explores the players’ predicament by presenting a series of living pictures which use the language of Ketoprak (the costumes and postures of performance) to reference its own threatened status. This project brings a unique view of a vanishing art form and traditional community to a new audience, a combination of photographic arts and performance which bridges the gap between contemporary and traditional art practices.

Supported by Arts Council and British Council the project has been presented at SOAS University of London and co-hosted with ARTi UK as part of Indonesia Kontemporer 2012. The first photographs were presented at iCAN in Indonesia January 2013. The second stage of the project was hosted in London at Gasworks. Since then the project has been represented at the Rich Mix, Photovoice PICS Festival, Delhi Photo Festival 2013 and the Kuala Lumpur Photo Awards 2014. For the final stage of the project two exhibitions are planned in the UK, at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool 16th May – 23rd August 2015, and at the Horniman Museum in London in Autumn 2015.