culture of bali

19 Feb Art in Bali

Nature conspired to gift Bali with an abundance of vibrant tropical flowers, scenic coastlines, towering volcanos and dramatic ravines draped in verdant rainforest. Rich volcanic soil allows farmers to carve the land into picturesque terraced rice fields fringed by palm trees, banana groves and fruit trees. With so much inspiration to be found in nature it hardly seems surprising that the arts have flourished so mightily on this small island.

Originally, artwork in Bali was religion-based, with artists and craftsmen working under the patronage of the priests and the elite to decorate palaces and temples in a particular style that allowed little individual creative expression. The artists remained anonymous, never signing their work and usually living close together in artists’ villages. Over the years the island was subjected to a myriad of influences, from Javanese, to Chinese, Indian, and in the 20th century the west, which saw the emergence of different art styles and greater personal expression, perhaps most evident in painting.

Traditionally men have been responsible for more classic artistic pursuits such as carving, painting and sculpting, while women express themselves through the creation of elaborate temple offerings towering with the choicest fruits and cakes. Even the smaller day to day offerings, known as canang sari, are works of simple beauty with leaves cut into patterns, vibrant flower petals, colourful rice cookies, and incense. As with many religions, artistry is an inherent aspect of Hindu worship, and the multitude of ornate temples that cover the island are adorned with hand sculpted stone reliefs, Hindu and Buddhist statues, elaborate friezes and decorative lamak – sacred ornamentation woven from palm leaves. Volcanic sandstone, known as paras is relatively soft when freshly quarried, so easy to carve and embellish, but hardens as time goes by. The intricately carved gates at the entrance of temples are seen as portals that connect the physical and spiritual world and are consequently decorated in symbols, motifs and mythological characters. The leering monster, ‘kala’ is commonly seen, and prevents evil characters from entering the sacred grounds, while guardian demons often flank the steps to the gateway. Carved vines, lotus flowers and leaves also make attractive features, as do borders portraying scenes from Balinese legends and stories. The village of Batubulan is famed for its stone carving and master carvers, and works of stone art lining the streets.

Artistic communities continue to flourish across the island, with different villages specialising in different crafts, from wood carving, to painting, sculpting and silver work. Once more of a pastime, the growth of tourism has created a ready market and Balinese art work, furniture and jewellery is now exported around the world. Many of these art villages are set around Ubud – known as the arts and cultural centre of the island, with its beautiful royal palace, lush water gardens, and temples clinging to the branches of soaring banyan trees. Away from the bustling main streets, the cobblestone lanes with their myriad of temples and museums create a living, breathing gallery. Many foreign artists have been drawn to the island’s beauty, such as the flamboyant Antonio Blanco, Walter Spies and Hans Snell, to name just a few.

The island’s painters originally decorated temples and shrines with materials created from local minerals and vegetables. Bamboo was used for brushwork, while local bark, wood and cloth provided the canvas. The village of Kamasan is home to this traditional style of painting and the artist/painters known as ‘sangging’ who painted narratives of Hindu epics. With the arrival of European artists at the start of this century, things began to change, most noticeably with the creation of the Pita Maha, ‘great vitality’, style of painting. This group was formed by western artists, Walter Spies and Rudolf Bonnet, and their Balinese patron Cokorda Gede Agung Sukawati. The goal was to encourage painting as an art form, and to embolden greater freedom of expression and the art that resulted from this period was known as the Ubud-style, a unique hybrid of western and traditional island forms.

When it comes to wood carving, the village of Mas is the most famous and its artisans specialise in elaborate carvings from single tree trunks, as well as handcrafted furniture. According to legend, a Hindu priest fleeing the spread of Islam in Java, came to Bali and made his home in Mas, and most villagers of Brahmin descent, are said to have the gift of carving flowing in their veins. Mas is also well known for the highly skilled art of mask carving. Masks, worn in traditional dance performances are decadently painted and adorned with hair, enormous teeth, and bulbous eyes.

Celuk is renowned for its jewellery – particularly intricate workings with fine silver, and many homes in the village have small-scale silver production. Traditionally this was a farming community, with just three families from the same caste famed for the art of crafting silver and gold into elaborate accessories for     Hindu prayers. With the advent of tourism the village underwent a massive shift in the 70’s, and now nearly the entire district is involved in decorative jewellery.

From wood furniture and stone carving, to batik printing, cloth weaving, jewellery, flower arrangements and painting, Balinese art work is an integral part of daily life. Rather than ‘objet d’art’ to be admired in galleries, it takes the form of practical everyday objects that enhance the island’s natural beauty.

– By Ali