The Encoded Cirebon Mask

Materiality, Flow, and Meaning along Java’s Islamic Northwest Coast
Series on Performing Arts and Literature of the Islamicate World, Vol. 2. (Leiden: Brill, 2016)


The Encoded Cirebon Mask traces the evolution of mask culture in Java from its popular entertainment roots to a sophisticated tasawwuf (Sufi) form during the late Dutch colonial era (1880-1942). This book is foundationally concerned with masks and other visual culture in their global context; however, rather than concentrating on diasporas and dispersal, the author focuses on migration flows in one place over time. The book’s themes of history, religion, emotions, and objects are explored through the optic of itinerant Sufi maskers traversing the crowded highway of Dutch colonial commerce and the Chinese, Arab, and Indian traders competing with them on Java’s northwest coast.

This project was supported by a Mellon-funded SSRC (Transregional Research) grant; KITLV/Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies research fellowship; and the Southeast Asia Program (SEAP) at Cornell University.

The Encoded Cirebon Mask is available from Glocal Matters through For inquiries about booking engagements within the United States and Canada, contact: encodedcirebonmask(at)gmail(dot)com.

Praise for The Encoded Cirebon Mask

A mountain of fascinating information, with great points made in many places one would not expect them. ...[Ross] explicates a rich history of ever-widening circuits.”
— Benedict R. O’Gorman Anderson.
Imagined Communities

This is a rare case of a scholar taking seriously the Islamic religious sentiments that underlie a local Southeast Asian artistic tradition.”
— Shahzad Bashir
Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Humanities, Professor of Religious Studies, Brown University

The Encoded Cirebon Mask is a deeply informed presentation of a remarkable performance tradition from Java. The rich ethnographic insights, based on years of experience, are enhanced by the author’s thoughtful reflections on Indonesian Sufi connections. This is a valuable contribution that will be of interest to anyone concerned with the culture and spiritual traditions of Southeast Asia, or the intersection of living art and religion.”
— Carl W. Ernst
Kenan Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The scholarship [Ross] delves into is formidable..”
— Kathy Foley
Professor of Theatre Arts, University of California, Santa Cruz, Editor, Asian Theatre Journal, President, UNIMA-USA

The study of the arts and performance in Java has often tended to portray these aesthetic traditions as legacies of a distant and pre-Islamic culture. In this sumptuously illustrated and beautifully written social history, Laurie Margot Ross explores one of the richest of Java’s performance traditions. She reveals how this deeply gendered dance tradition, in which a woman or man dances with masks that portray male characters, has systematic links to key elements of Islamic mysticism (tasawwuf). As with Islamic traditions in Indonesia as a whole, the masked dance tradition has also been swept up and transformed by changes in Islamic religious authority and practice since the late nineteenth century. The story Ross tells speaks powerfully to central questions in the study of Islam and the arts, and to equally compelling questions of what Islam in Java was and is today becoming. In short, this is one of the finest and most moving works on the Islamic arts in Southeast Asia that I have ever read.”
— Robert W. Hefner
Professor of Anthropology and Global Studies, Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs, The Pardee School of Global Affairs, Boston University

Ross has given us a beautifully written and illustrated book, full of new information and profound insights… gleaned from [her] many years of multi-sited, methodologically diverse research. She illuminates her close examination of a variety of artifacts and her intensive participant-observation of topeng training and performances with far-ranging ethnographic and archival research. Ross’s explication of topeng’s embroilments with Indonesian politics and Indonesian discourses of Islam extends well beyond the work of previous researchers, whose focus on mysticism and continuities in topeng performance often obscured the tradition’s remarkable flexibility in the face of calamitous changes.”
— Henry Spiller
Professor of Ethnomusicology and Chair, Department of Music, University of California, Davis [from Asian Theatre Journal Vol. 35, No. 1 [Spring 2018]
Ross firmly imbeds her history of Topeng in Cirebon’s complex mestizo
culture, which includes Javanese, Chinese, and Arabic elements, along with
European colonial influences…[t]he particular value of this book is the breadth and depth
of information that Ross has collected and curated for us.”
— Michael C. Ewing Professor, University of Melbourne [Bijdragen Tot De Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 175 (2019), 81-135.