by Kat Geng
Instagram: @ katgeng
When I was a kid I remember the pure delight I felt when my mom suggested we open up the chest. It was a steel chest. Maybe not steel, but something impenetrable by mouse or moth. Something with a lid heavy enough, that it only warranted lifting once a year. As I squat beside it, eager to unveil it’s contents, my eyes were poised perfectly to peer inside.
First, with great care and exactitude she would hand me a small stack of folded sheets she had removed from within which I would place gingerly on the floor beside me. Layer by pillowcase by layer we would work. Our annual excavation in the living room. As with any excavation, findings would be greeted with a squeal. The first layers always revealed the unattached bits; a sparkling crown gone loose, a magician’s cape untied, a lock of princess hair. With each layer, came rediscoveries of less often seen friends. An older generation, whose faded frocks, and tattered seams were evidence of their past as seasoned performers; the puppet cast of Puppenbühne Helen Geng.*
In May 2020, a few months into quarantine, I found myself eye to sequin eye with Ursula. Ursula was a puppet as sweet as I remembered her. Despite the frown which remained unmoved upon her face since 1945, I found warmth in the fabric folds that formed her soft jowls and the black rimmed glasses that rested at an awkward slant across her nose. Her painted wrinkles mapped a life long lived, her face just a shade darker than xerox paper. I suspect most of her life she spoke german but to me she speaks english with a sweet whine.
And as quickly as she appeared, so does my laughter. And with it imaginings of a puppet cast revived. Imaginings of all the ways we might incite play, the ways we might become art together; these German puppets and I. And then, as I see Ursula’s pale hand rest upon my arm, an olive brown arm, it hits me. Am I to go unseen? What does that mean? I see joy, I see love, but I do not see me. I do not see my olive brown skin, high cheekbones, brown hair or dark eyes. In fact, I do not see many people. The histories that course through my veins are not held within her seams.
And so I begin to create my own puppet troupe. I begin at first with reluctance. Doubt really. And then I gain courage and speed. And one by one, puppet by puppet, I proceed. I dye fabrics all the shades of brown that the packaged dyes will permit, light brown, pink brown, dark brown, cocoa brown. I mix shades with shades. Then from these shades, I sew noses, wide ones, short ones, all sorts of noses . Sometimes I make dark eyes and curly hair, other times a bald men with a purple skirt appears. I form happy and sad and angry and mad. I don’t even know what I’m making sometimes. All I know is I create what was missing, or so I try. And in this visual unearthing of identity, I sometimes make what I least want to. So an unwelcome ancestor shows up as a cute Spanish conquistador. And I doubt again. Where is that brown goddess of strength and resilience I so seek? And so I continue. Today I am making Madremonte, a Colombian diety, a mischievous, enraged protector of the mountains and forest. She is a work-in-progress and perhaps she is not the goddess I seek but she brings me one step closer. And with that, I feel delight.
*Puppenbühne Helen Geng was a puppet theatre operating after WWII around Frankfurt, Germany named after my maternal adoptive grandmother, Helen Geng. She was the founder and the puppeteer of the 80 plus puppets along with my grandfather, Rudy Geng, who performed for an audience of German and American children.