Life

Painting pioneer a living
treasure

Epic: Ni Made Suciarmi's classic Kamasan painting depicts a story from the Mahabharata

The Kamasan ceiling paintings in the Klungkung Palace’s Kertha Gosa pavilions direct people to a life of honesty.

There is a slow rhythmic swish as artist Ni Made Suciarmi grinds red and yellow ochre into pigments.

Outside the Sangging village studio in Kamasan, Klungkung, a sign reads “Ni Made Suciarmi classical Kamasan style art by woman”, a clear jibe at the many who claimed Balinese women couldn’t paint, says this accidental champion of women’s rights in Bali.

“Some learned men used to say there are no women painters in Kamasan. I am here — I’ve always been here. I was painting before they were even born,” says 79-year-old Suciarmi, who first took up a bamboo brush in the early 1940s.  

Despite her work being revered by visitors to the Klungkung painting village of Kamasan by her family and by the temples that were often the recipients of her artwork, her talent was often ignored by Bali’s art history aficionados.

Discovering the talent of Suciarmi, and uncovering the denial of the existence of women artists within academic circles in Bali back in the late 1990s, led Mary Northmore MBE (member of the Order of the British Empire) and widow of Indonesian artist Abdul Aziz to establish a women’s art gallery, Seniwati, in Ubud.

“Suciarmi is one of the reasons I started the gallery. I felt it was ridiculous people were denying the existence of women artists in Bali. That they were denying the most pure, the most senior artist because she happened to be a woman,” says Northmore who believes Suciarmi should be declared a national treasure.

“[Suciarmi] is fabulous — a most extraordinary woman and person. She carries the national, and particularly Bali’s, heritage in her hands and heart,” says Northmore of the artist who was born to paint, despite her gender.

“It started like this,” says Suciarmi, “when I was kid, all the older [men] here in Sangging were painters in the Kamasan style. My mother was from Ubud so we would go back and forth from there to here and when I was small I really liked to watch the painters, but I was not allowed to do it as I was only 6 years old. So I started to draw on the ground with a coconut leaf stem,” says Suciarmi of the day 73 years ago when she started her career as an artist and pioneer of women in the arts.

Her father was a modern thinker who says Suciarmi saw no reason why his daughter should not become a painter.

“At that time men painted and women wove cloth. I didn’t like weaving, I preferred painting and I never learned, instead I was the first female painter here. My father was happy to break with tradition, he said, ‘She can paint; there is no problem.’ He had modern thinking,” says Suciarmi who was also backed by a local painting teacher.

“When he saw one of my first sketches of Arjuna, I was around 9 years old. He told my parents ‘she has a good hand and a good eye. This girl must become a painter.’”  

Seven decades on and Suciarmi is still grinding her ochre, starching and polishing the calico that is her canvas, her eye and hand as accurate as in her youth. Her mortar and pestle have been in use for as long as the artist has been working.

“I bought these ceramic bowls when I was 9 years old and I am still using them. They are special, from Java,” says Suciarmi, sorting through her tool basket as many women sort through their sewing boxes, selecting odds and ends that are memories made tangible decades on.

Kamasan-style painting developed “before the Dutch came”, says Suciarmi of the wayang kulit-style paintings that are teeming with life. In pride of place in her home is a painting done “more than 30 years ago. It’s the malat story from the Mahabharata. I have sold many of the sketches from that painting, but the painting is not for sale. See the colors are still strong,” says Suciarmi of the work that shows hundreds of human figures preparing for battle in fine detail. As she talks of this work, she trills the song of gamelan and dances, at 79 still extraordinarily graceful in her movements.

Well worn: The artist's mortar and pestle are now 70 years old. Suciarmi purchased them at her local Sangging village market when she was 9.
Suciarmi’s ochres were once found in Serangan in Bali’s south. Glue used to bind the pigments to her canvas that was made from cow intestines is no longer transparent, and she has given up sourcing black pigment from lamp soot and now uses a German tint.

“We always used ochre from Serangan for our Kamasan paintings. That’s all closed now and we can no longer take the ochre rocks because there is a hotel on the site, so it’s difficult to find the ochre. It comes from Sulawesi now. This piece of ochre rock is from there, so it’s already lost in Bali. This cow fiber for the glue was transparent, even that has changed and is not the same. I no longer make my black tint from lamp soot. That was too hard, but my brushes are still bamboo. A lot of people now make Kamasan with acrylic paint, but I still use my ochre,” says Suciarmi, who has six children. “Only my daughter paints Kamasan. The others work on cruise ships and in Denpasar as teachers. My daughter does not have a lot of time to paint as she is a
policewoman.”  

Since the 16th century, paintings for temples and palaces have been the life order of many born in Kamasan. This history was not splintered by volcanic eruptions, earthquakes or colonization, nor even by a young girl refusing a loom and taking up instead the bamboo brushes destined for the boys.

That slow rhythmic swish of ochre being ground into paint was the song of Kamasan, a song now rarely heard in a fast paced world.

— Photos By J.B. Djwan

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