I love Bali: What art thou, Bali?
What is the artistic essence of Bali? Let’s not go there. Let’s go to the river instead, where I Nyoman Tjokot (the “sculptor extraordinaire” of Bali, as he was later known) was frolicking around after a hard day in the rice fields, or taking a break from his priestly duties. He was collecting some driftwood for kitchen fuel and decided that some of these dead pieces of wood had been artistically engraved by Mother Nature. He continued the process by pouring out his own artistic urges onto a select few of them, while others simply found their way to the kitchen as firewood. He continued to do this, producing the most weird and wonderful works of sculpture, not knowing or caring if they were to be called art. Then “foreigners” came and declared that those were indeed great works of art, ahead of their time, avant-garde, created by the “Dalí of Bali”, and above all, convertible to a dollar value.
Or let’s follow I Gusti Nyoman Lempad from the village of Bedulu, when he was invited by the royal family of Ubud to carve the palace’s temples and gates. He continued living there, pouring out his artistic urges, furnishing the village with his drawings and paintings so as to establish Ubud as one of the artistic centers of Bali. Mind you, such a term only become familiar after some European artists settled and worked here, spreading its artistic reputation worldwide. Hence, the first art museum on the island was built in Ubud, followed naturally by art galleries, art markets, art shops and the like.
The conversion of these traditionally religious and social artistic skills into saleable works of art spread throughout the island like wild fire, if you’ll excuse the term, presenting the Balinese people with a new commodity to be traded in the arts world. With skills rooted deep in the activities of their daily lives, all Balinese people are shown to be artists, dancers, singers and musicians. These skills are enhanced by the copying of other’s works, as naturally they learn everything from their forebears.
While the sculptors still carve temples and buildings, painters still paint and decorate cremation towers and sacred effigies, they can also do paintings and handicrafts to service export orders. Dancers and musicians still perform at social and religious ceremonies, but now have opportunities to dance at hotels and nightclubs as well.
But what about art for the sake of art? Surely there is “serious” art being produced in Bali? The Bali Arts Festival is serious work, I tell you. It’s seriously big. It presents music, dance and drama from all over the island and beyond, for a whole month. It exhibits all kinds of arts, from traditional lontar leaf painting, to modern useable arts and crafts, such as batik cloth and all kinds of jewelry, as well as the more practical art of games and plastic toys made in China. And no festival is held in Bali without food, so there are food stalls and food carts in abundance at the Bali Arts Festival. There is no more serious arts event than this in Bali, for the nation’s President himself must come to open it.
Let’s not forget that there are now hundreds of art galleries and art studios all over the island. Serious works by world-renowned maestros and artists are housed in some of these premises. Some are traditional works, some sacred, some abstract, modern, contemporary, originals, copies, or both side by side. Some are for sale, some for show only. What more could one want?
So, if you’re still wondering about the essence of the Balinese arts, let’s just go to the river and ponder a piece of driftwood, carved by Mother Nature, just as I Nyoman Tjokot did.
A poet, lives in Ubud