Research: ZooMorph Indonesia


Allison Leigh Holt, Fulbright Fellow, Indonesia

2009 - 2010 ZooMorph Research

Conducted in Central Java



Fig. 2: Tokek Anak #6



                  From September 2009 to September 2010, I lived and worked in Central Java as a Fulbright Fellow. My project, entitled Strange Loops: Hybrid Reality in Javanese Culture, focused on Javanese metaphysical concepts and cognition, and throughout the year I investigated traditional tools and methods allowing humans to experience reality beyond the limits of normal human perception, ultimately creating models for these in the form of diagrams, videosculpture, and live-processed sound installation. In the months before leaving the US, I learned that Lisa Jevbratt's research for ZooMorph included working with shamans and animal communicators; since our respective projects held these unique people in common, I offered to assist in collecting information for ZooMorph by talking with my contacts about animal vision/reality as experienced by animals, and she accepted.



            My goals for contributing to ZooMorph were to locate individuals in Indonesia who are animal communicators, shape-shifters, or those whose skills include some form of assuming animal vision, and to record our conversations. I agreed to upload content to the ZooMorph site if possible, and to keep in touch with Lisa via email and Skype.



                  Within seven weeks after my arrival in Indonesia, it became clear that major changes in my own project were necessary as my Javanese collaborative partner-- and primary contact for my own research--was unable to fulfill his commitment. The challenge of pursuing new relationships in support of the study of what is considered secret, sacred knowledge took my full attention; although it opened paths to unexpectedly rich opportunities, learning the Indonesian and Javanese languages while navigating a complex culture--and its layered, deeply opaque style of communication--made progress slow-going. It seemed possible, at times, that my combined race, education, sex, and unmarried relationship status were insurmountable obstacles to clear, respectful communication; I know now that developing a mature relationship to a way of life so foreign to my own is an incredibly delicate process, even despite the formidable nature of my focus and circumstances. I see my first twelve months as a crash course in becoming more culturally tolerant, thoughtful, and relaxed; more philosophically and cognitively limber; and more technically clever in terms of problem solving within unusual limitations.



                  The following is a list of people I spoke with about ZooMorph, and the results of my interaction with them:


Pak Sri Joko Raharjo

                  I began working with Pak Sri Joko Raharjo--a renowned dhalang (shadowpuppet master) and gamelan musician, and also a former Fulbright Fellow--in November. We met a total of four times in as many weeks, and he told me about a friend, Bli Imade Sidie of Bali, a man who he said is very skilled in meditation and a practice akin to shapeshifting. During our last discussion very early in December, Pak Sri Joko let me know he would not be able to meet again until January, and in January he did not return my calls. My own research with him stopped then and my own priorities did not take me to Bali until a brief visit for a Fulbright conference in May.


Pak Midianto S. Putro

                  Pak Midianto S. Putro is a friend and an associate professor of music at the University of California at Berkeley who visited Java in December. I spent three weeks traveling by motorcycle between Solo (Surakarta) and his home village in Wonogiri to talk with his father, Pak Sutino Hardono Carito. He speaks only Javanese, so our conversations were translated by Pak Midianto. (During an Asian Arts Festival in 1991, Pak Sutino and Pak Midi were invited by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. to perform 2-hour wayang (shadow plays) twice a day for three months; Pak Sutino also performed ruwatan (cleansing ritual/exorcism) for the entire institution at that time.)

                  Pak Midianto offered to introduce me to a traditional dance troupe in Semarang, Central Java whose dance form includes transforming into animal spirits, however, by the time he returned to the USA in January I was still unable to arrange this. Although Pak Sutino is now, at 82, the oldest living dhalang in Central Java, he had no suggestions when asked about people whose expertise includes animal vision.

Dessy Zahara Angelina

                  From March through August, I was an artist in residence at Cemeti Art House/Rumah Seni Cemeti in Yogyakarta, where Dessy Zahara Angelina is a member of the management staff. She is now joining the directorial staff of Animal Friends Yogya, a wild animal rescue center where she was also very involved during my time at Cemeti. According to her, a rescue center coworker is an animal communicator and was willing to talk with me, but since their organization underwent both a change in management and cutbacks in government funding, this person was consistently unavailable due to out-of-town business and an increased workload.

Katerina Valdevia-Bruch

                  Katerina Valdevia-Bruch is a Berlin-based contemporary art curator of German-Peruvian descent. When we met at Cemeti Art House in April, we talked about the trouble I had been having with finding individuals who could contribute to ZooMorph in Indonesia: concern for the environment and animal rights in Indonesia is in a grim state. A testament to this is a popular tourist attraction in Yogyakarta, the Yogya Bird Market, where anyone can buy an infant Longtailed Macaque monkey, baby owls, or giant fruit bats and geckos for traditional medicine. Since so few people are left in Indonesia who focus on the human connection with animals, she suggested I contact a personal friend of hers, Manuel Raez, an anthropologist and researcher from the Pontifical University in Peru, who has recently been working in the mountains there with shapeshifters. She gave me his contact information, and this is my strongest result.



            Below and on the cover of this report is a photo of a very young tokek (gecko) on the floor of my kitchen in Sukoharjo, Central Java. It is roughly three-and-a-half inches long from tip to tail. Several adults lived in the large, traditional house I rented there--both in the eaves and indoors--most of which were seven-to-ten inches long, mint-green colored, with rust and orange spots and large amber eyes. Having even one living in a house is considered good luck, and my house likely had four or five. They fetch a high price in animal markets where they are sold for use in traditional medicine.

              Throughout my year there, the two tokek living in my outdoor shower/washing area shared a living space, and I almost always saw them together. In July, I began to see their offspring (below). This baby's flat head is very large in proportion to its body (as it will be in adulthood), and its eye is likewise large in proportion to its head. In full sunlight, these eyes contract their pupils so that they are nearly invisible; in complete darkness they dilate to almost total blackness. The four horizontal breaks in this vertical pupil--best visible on the left side in the photo below--are very interesting to me.



Fig. 3: Tokek Anak #6 (detail)


                  I include this section because among the relationships I had in Java, what I developed with these animals was significant: since we spent a good deal of time watching one another, they developed a continually greater trust in me over the year; I worried over them when I was away; and they featured regularly in my dreams. Their behavior tended to defy the stereotype of reptiles living solitary lives motivated only by fear and procreation. From my brief online search, this looks like it may be a Lacerta gecko.

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