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Inspiring change-maker: Balinese art maverick I Wayan Sika

Richard Horstman
Richard Horstman

Artivist, observes and reports on developments in the Bali and Indonesian art scenes

Ubud  /  Wed, January 15, 2020  /  01:40 pm
  • Wayan Sika at the Balinese Masters opening ceremony in April 2019.

    Wayan Sika at the Balinese Masters opening ceremony in April 2019. OF Courtesy of ArtBali/File

    Wayan Sika at the Balinese Masters opening ceremony in April 2019.

  • 'Krishna Narayana' (2009) - I Wayan Sika

    'Krishna Narayana' (2009) - I Wayan Sika OF JP/Richard Horstman

    'Krishna Narayana' (2009) - I Wayan Sika

  • 'Essence of Void' (2019) - I Wayan Sika

    'Essence of Void' (2019) - I Wayan Sika OF JP/Richard Horstman

    'Essence of Void' (2019) - I Wayan Sika

  • 'Kasi Cinta' (Give Love) (2008) - I Wayan Sika

    'Kasi Cinta' (Give Love) (2008) - I Wayan Sika OF JP/Richard Horstman

    'Kasi Cinta' (Give Love) (2008) - I Wayan Sika

  • 'Consent' (2009), 300 x 200cm

    'Consent' (2009), 300 x 200cm OF JP/Richard Horstman

    'Consent' (2009), 300 x 200cm

  • 'Bali 7 Maret 2017 'The Day of Nyepi New Year Cakra 1941' (2017) - I Wayan Sika

    'Bali 7 Maret 2017 'The Day of Nyepi New Year Cakra 1941' (2017) - I Wayan Sika OF JP/Richard Horstman

    'Bali 7 Maret 2017 'The Day of Nyepi New Year Cakra 1941' (2017) - I Wayan Sika

  • 'New Rising Life' (2014) - I Wayan Sika

    'New Rising Life' (2014) - I Wayan Sika OF JP/Richard Horstman

    'New Rising Life' (2014) - I Wayan Sika


On Saturday, Jan. 4, at 11 p.m. Balinese artist I Wayan Sika lay down upon his bed at his home above his gallery, the Sika Contemporary Art Gallery in Sanggingan, Ubud.

He closed his eyes and sometime after he drew his final breath.

His sudden and unexpected death sent immediate shock waves throughout the Balinese community, the Indonesian art world and beyond.

A friend and inspiration to many, Sika was a true maverick. Visionary, painter, woodcarver, community leader, art provocateur, gallerist, curator, writer, teacher, husband, father, mentor, along with being an ambassador of Balinese art and culture — he was driven by a kind, yet potent inner force.

Wayan Sika was born on Sep. 24, 1949, and raised in the family compound in Silakarang, Gianyar. His father, I Nyoman Narsa, was a renowned woodcarver. Many students came to his studio to study under his guidance, providing an inspiring learning environment for the young Sika. 

Sika’s formal art education began at the Indonesian School of Fine Art (SSRI) in Denpasar, followed by four years studying painting at the Academy of Indonesian Fine Art (ASRI) in Yogyakarta.

In 1970, aged 21, Sika along with pioneering Balinese modernist Nyoman Gunarsa (1944-2017), Made Wianta and other students at the ASRI, founded the Sanggar Dewata Indonesia (SDI) artists foundation. Young and dynamic, the artists loved to experiment with new techniques and aesthetic concepts. A turning point and a radical new era in Balinese art, an original genre of contemporary art evolved through SDI that was recognized within world art for its aesthetic and philosophical distinctions.

“Sika was, along with Nyoman Erawan, one of the principal proponents of 'Hindu' abstraction, a type of painting that structured space, and to a certain extent color, in such a way as to express basic principles of the Balinese Hindu cosmology,” said Bali historian and art critic Jean Couteau. “It was an important moment of the 'rationalization' endeavor undertaken by the Balinese elites of the 70s and 80s to 'universalize' both their art and their beliefs.”

After finishing his studies in Yogyakarta in 1973, Sika returned to Bali, married Dwi Atmi, and began a family, fathered three children: Ni Putu Krishnawati, I Made Aji Aswino and Ni Komang Astri Krisnandi. He began a furniture business specializing in pieces carved in the Renaissance Rococo style. The company grew to employ more than 100 carvers, while ministers from the Soeharto era acquired this furniture for their homes and offices.

In 1982 Sika was summoned by the government to go to New Zealand to produce furniture for the Indonesian Embassy.

Europe was his next international destination and in 1986, Sika was in Switzerland making expressive carvings and bronze statues for twelve months. He received an order in 1989 from a Museum in Basel, Switzerland, to make a Balinese Barong for their collection. It was during this period that the head of the Christof Merian Foundation saw his paintings and invited him to join their program of International Exchange Artists. Sika held his debut solo exhibition in Basel in 1989. The show sold out and this success provided the self-belief he required to devote more energy to his paintings.  

Building community was one of Sika’s life intentions. During an interview I conducted with him in 2010, he said it was consistently challenging for the SDI artists to find a location to exhibit their work in Bali. He founded the Sika Contemporary Art Gallery in 1996 in Campuhan, Ubud as an exhibition venue in time to celebrate the 25th anniversary of SDI. The non-sales orientated gallery specialized in providing space to support regular exhibitions by talented young artists from Indonesia and around the world. International contemporary art star Nyoman Masriadi exhibited at the gallery as an emerging artist while still living nearby in Sakah, Gianyar.

Sika’s commitment to the community also extended to education and his actions were relevant in the development of new schools and kindergartens. He was instrumental in the revival in 1987 of the High School of Visual Arts (SMSR) Ubud, which later changed its name to Ubud Vocational High School. On Oct. 1, 2010, after a 34-year association, Sika retired as a part-time lecturer at the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) in Denpasar.

In 1996 Sika was asked by the Christof Merian Foundation to select Indonesian artists to travel to Basel. Made Wianta, Nyoman Erawan, Made Djirna, Made Budhiana, Edi Hara, Ketut Pandi Taman and Putu Sutawijaya all gained vital exposure to galleries from London, Holland and Germany. Their works are considered today among some of Indonesia’s finest contemporary art.

In 2001, Sika chose to step aside from the Christof Merian Foundation and reassess his focus, dedicating himself to his spiritual journey. As an artist this was to have a profound effect upon his work. He continued to organize group and community exhibitions as well as curating, writing in books, catalogs, magazines and newspapers. Sika experienced a series of health problems that saw him unconscious on three occasions, in 2003, 2006 and 2009, when he hovered close to death for many days. On this occasion, he received visions that inspired his final artistic journey a series of spiritual-religious paintings.

Over the next 10 years, Sika painted when "called", often early in the morning after meditating. He created a distinct body of works within the framework of Balinese contemporary painting, pictures that channeled high-frequency symbols and texts - messages from the "other" world. And while such artworks are a renowned facet of the Balinese way of life, Sika’s paintings were distinctly noteworthy – rare and valuable.

I lived near Sika for 10 years and I would often visit and we discussed an array of subjects, as well as art. A frequent topic was sekala/nisakla (the seen and unseen elements of life according to the Balinese), and about the complexities of his culture. He disclosed his preparations for moksa and his then-current series of paintings that he displays in his gallery. Sika recalled how they had impacted upon visitors to the gallery. While each composition was slightly different, all resonated with an invisible force that could be felt.

Read also: 'Balinese Masters' exhibition presents significant insights into development of Balinese painting

Sika shared with me that on more than a few occasions he would venture downstairs from his living abode above the gallery to where his paintings hung and find a visitor, mostly foreign tourists, engaging with his works. Some expressed strong emotions of grief and sadness, he said, while others sat peacefully in meditation. He often had long conversations with these people about his paintings. I too had my personal experiences.

The beautiful mixed media compositions often featured glowing golden hues. Consent (2009) depicts an enormous lotus flower with a five-tiered triangular structure positioned on top of the petals. Upon each level was Sanskrit text revealing a narrative relevant to his process of spiritual evolution. Krishna Narayana (2009) features a figure cloaked in a green fabric veil, a complex system of chakras define energy centres upon the physical form, other sacred symbols and mantras complete the composition along with a depiction of Hyang Sang Widhi, the Balinese supreme being. The paintings pulsate silent messages that resonate with the soul.

To many these works are mysterious, and cannot be explained. According to Balinese traditions and the creation of the sacred classical, religious paintings, and the amulet diagrams on cloth, rerajahan are one of the distinct functions of an artist. They act as an intermediary between the heavenly realms and Earth to translate esoteric information into decipherable and practical codes. Sika’s mission was similar while defining important steps within his journey, and contributing to the development of Balinese contemporary painting.

“When I met Wayan Sika in 1980 he regularly talked about spirituality and how it related to contemporary visual art,” said renowned Balinese contemporary artist, academic and lecturer at ISI Denpasar, Wayan Karja. “He often shared about Rwabhineda, the Balinese Hindu concept of dualism and his ideas about the polarity of black and white which inspired me to see the world in a different way - in many colors."

“Sika was one of my inspirations and helped me to create a broader picture of the Balinese religious cosmology within the concept of contemporary art,” he added.

A special moment for Sika was April 12, 2019, at the recently commissioned exhibition facility AB•BC Building, Nusa Dua. He and his son Aswino Aji, cofounder of ArtBali, the annual Indonesian contemporary art exhibition at the AB•BC Building, helped officiate the opening ceremony of Balinese Masters: Aesthetic DNA Trajectories of Balinese Visual Art, a showcasing of installations, paintings, sculptures, drawings and objects by 34 Balinese artists and communities. Sika was also one of the invited artist; his installation of nine paintings. The Essence of the Void (2019), measuring 360 cm by 360 cm, was one of the highlights of the show.

There is much that can and should be written about I Wayan Sika, not only about his art, yet also about his generous character. Many have tales of this important change-maker who willingly supported individual and community development (creative, human and spiritual). The Sika Contemporary Gallery has played a distinct and important role in the development of Indonesian art. His renegade anti-establishment attitude was an inspiration and vital essence in the pursuit of Balinese contemporary art. Sika’s artworks are accessible to the public and continually on display in his gallery.

Sika has now crossed over to the other side, yet the veil between the two worlds here in Bali is very thin. The Balinese are renowned for their rich oral tradition of storytelling, and now Sika’s memory will live on through this cultural expression. When we talk about Sika, we will have good cause for celebration knowing that he is close by and his spirit is alive in each and every word.

Selamat jalan Pak Sika, and thank you. (dev/kes)

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.