ART IN UBUD
by Jean Couteau
The world of Balinese painting has in the last few years been taken by storm by
the modernist discourse. Galleries, journalists and collectors alike - mostly
non-indigenous and with their respective vested interests - all concur to support
an art which retains very few references to the indigenous tradition. Bali seems
invaded by a discourse where the problem of form has become prominent,
relegating indigenous message and content to the background, when they dont
disappear altogether. Abstraction or semi-abstraction - either in the constructed,
informal or American expressionist mode - rules the day while little
is being said about Balinese society and values, as if these were waning for good.
When Bali appears, it is either to worship the (past) greatness of
the island culture or merely in a referential way - eyes of the Balinese witch,
checkered black and white cloth, triangular shape of the cosmic mountain - as
if being Balinese simply meant making a statement of identity through the use
of connotative symbols.
There are a number of causes for this phenomenon. Part of this modern painting
discourse is probably authentic, but much is certainly determined by the alienating
conditions of the Balinese market, which is mainly controlled by Jakartans, foreigners
and non-indigenous locals, who are looking to buy an art corresponding to their
national and cosmopolitan expectations.
This situation is all the saddest as there is in Bali, beside a stilted, tourist
oriented art, a post-traditional painting which is strenuously looking for modernity
within the Balinese system of form and themes. A masterly presentation of this
different art is the current exhibition of Ketut Budiana at the Agung
Rai Museum of Art (ARMA) in Ubud which has been completely, and shamefully by-passed
by the national press. The exhibition is running from 5 April to 5 May 2000.
Ketut Budiana was born in 1950 in Padangtegal Ubud. He had as his background,
beside the overall magic of Bali itself, the Balinese imagery of Pita Maha, the
school founded in the 1930s, under the spur of the painters Walter Spies (1895-1942)
and Rudolf Bonnet (1895-1978).
Modern-educated and currently a teacher at the Senior High School of Fine Arts
in Batubulan, he nevertheless belongs to Bali. Budiana is skilled
at making temple images, masks for sacred performances and cremation artifacts.
And it is the renewal and expansion of this tradition, rather than its questioning,
that his painting is all about, as we shall see below.
Thematically, Budianas painting is deeply rooted in Balinese tradition:
he talks about pradana-purusa, Bumi, Rangda and Barong, Tumbal, leyak and other
characters and symbols typically Balinese. Yet it would be a mistake to see his
work as a simple transmission, for a New Age public, of ordinary Balinese symbols.
The Balinese symbolic references Budiana is using are neither narrative, anecdotal,
exotic nor magical in the operational sense of the word. They are instead philosophical,
albeit dressed in a Fantastic garb. What Budiana actually exposes
is a visual reconceptualization of Hindu-Balinese concepts - a reconceptualization
which, interestingly, has never been attempted in philosophy proper, modern thinkers
preferring to cast aside Balinese concepts to replace them with ready made, imported
Indian ones. This reconceptualization is done at once by a simplification and
transformation of the iconography. Even though the canvas is full,
as is usual in Balinese painting, the symbols are limited in number, and therefore
easier to identify. They also owe little to tradition proper, or rather are a
free reinterpretation of it. We are taken in fact, beyond Bali, into
a fantastic world which is at once personal, Balinese, and directly
readable as universal. In Kelahiran for example, we see two characters
to the upper right and left of the canvas, that symbolize the male and female
principles, emerging from the cosmic haze. They can be construed as cosmic forces,
union of opposites, the deities Siwa and Uma, or male semen and female ovule kama
putih and kama bang. The monstrous shape of the cosmic mother occupies the center
of the canvas, while the cross symbolizes the cosmic movement. This work is no
less than a visual presentation of the cosmos in its birth process both at the
microcosmic (Bhwana Alit=human) and macrocosmic (Bhwana Agung=world) levels. It
is a Balinese version of the very basis of the Hindu religious philosophy.
This renewal of iconography goes alongside with a renewal of the form. Melihat
Bumi (Behold the Earth), a depiction of the cosmic force of the earth, represents
the head from a quite uncommon angle - from above. There is an uncanny touch of
Degas in this view of the bald head of the Earth, considering that the Balinese
normally use a very limited, and highly stereotyped, range of angles in their
representation - mostly face and semi-profile. Budiana demonstrates in this work
that he can use traditional iconographic patterns when it suits his symbolic purposes
and, when needed, create altogether new forms to enhance the power of meaning
of the chosen theme. His is a modern mind within a traditional frame
Budianas technique rests, like that of any traditional Balinese
painter, on the quality of his drawing. Some of his works are indeed purely black
and white. His lines flow freely, as if unconstrained by iconography, in a manner
that is reminiscent of Lempads. See for example Ngereh (Witch Dance), based
on a witchcraft story on the way to gain magical powers by sacrificing a child.
In his color works Budiana still employs, like most Ubud painters of his generation,
the wash technique with Chinese ink, but he does it, unlike most of his peers,
in a way that enables him to use the expressive potential of color. In his best
paintings the wash layers create a general atmosphere on top of which bright color
surfaces are painted to enhance the whole.
Going back to the concerns expressed at the beginning of the article, what Ketut
Budiana is demonstrating in this masterful exhibition is that there is room for
the growth and development of Balinese post-traditional painting.
The themes can be expanded and modernized, the iconography renewed, the techniques
perfected. The works can remain Balinese while their esoteric meaning is made
accessible to people who dont understand the Hindu world of symbols.
And as far as Ketut Budiana himself is concerned, one would like to see him recognized
as one of the masters of Fantastic Art, in the tradition of the late
European Middle Ages or, closer to us, the likes of Fussli and Odilon Redon.