Rio Helmi is one of very few non-Balinese photographers who see beyond the mesmerizing outer – and often superficial – beauty of the island.
Bali, its people and its culture are not immune to change, a fact that is usually swept under the rug by those who capitalize on the island’s cultural “authenticity” or past glories and would like to present the island as an ever-peaceful abode of the static divine.
Helmi has penetrated that façade, repeatedly reinforced by the mighty machinery of the lucrative tourism industry.
His exhibitions – “Seen and Unseen”, “Memories of the Sacred”, “Urbanities” and now “Transitory” – all deal with culture, change and how people respond to change. They also discuss problems that haunt certain cultures and Bali’s in particular, with efforts to navigate the confusing maze of modernity without getting lost or losing cultural identity.
According to Helmi, the island is now facing several major challenges in relation to its cultural identity. The carrying capacity of the island had hit critical mass, not only in terms of ecological burden, but also in terms of cultural lebensraum.
Ecologically, every high school kid in Bali understands tensions over water shortages, disappearing agricultural land and a booming population.
“But more pointed is the discussion of identity and cultural rights. A good deal of a Balinese’s spiritual life centers around his or her ancestors: what he or she inherits from them in terms of tradition (material and spiritual being tightly interwoven) and what to leave for the next generation. Once principally an agrarian society, the emotional bond to inherited land is linked not only to personal but also to communal spiritual well being,” he said.
For example, most homes in a village are the birthright of the families that inhabit it, but unlike farmland, the land actually belongs to the community and is known as karang desa and cannot be sold. That is to help ensure all members of the community are provided for, but also to maintain integrity and cohesion in society.
“Farmland and such that is actually inherited can be sold but represents a deep link to the ancestors, who are worshipped every day in the family temple. Then there is what is considered sacred property of temples, laban pura, not only seen as a temple’s ‘profit center’ but also its spiritual buffer. Temples, the related ceremonies and ‘tithes’ all are part of the glue that holds Balinese society together,” he said.
Possession or dispossession of land, he said, is something of a symbolic last stand for Balinese culture as a living, breathing entity.
From this context, the photographs of Bali created by Rio Helmi should not only be viewed as works of art but also as poignant admonitions from a loving friend.
— JP/I Wayan Juniarta
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