BEHOLD YOURSELF: The paintings of I Ketut Budiana
by Michele Stephen

The imagery Ketut Budiana creates in his paintings might appear to be totally idiosyncratic - sometimes playful, sometimes horrific, endlessly inventive and exotic. Yet the themes he explores are deeply rooted in traditional Balinese philosophy, mythology and religion, and in esoteric teachings contained in the sacred lontar (hand-inscribed books made from specially treated palm-leaf). The extraordinary shapes and forms that fill his paintings are not, as they might appear to be, the nightmare products of a troubled psyche, but draw upon traditional sources, such as the compendiums of magic drawings (rarajahan) found in the lontar. Although it has long been asserted that balance, order and harmony are the overriding concerns of Balinese philosophy and culture, the proliferation of grotesque, monstrous images in temples and in traditional art, belies such views. Like the temple art, Budiana’s paintings are dominated by the grotesque and monstrous - great pointed fangs, grasping claws, gaping mouths, disembodied limbs, distorted genitals, huge eyes, witches and monsters devouring victims, and each other. Budiana’s themes are serious but he often treats them in a humorous and playful way, as is also typical of traditional Balinese art. Some of his paintings have a kind of ribald humour reminiscent of the scenes of punishments in Hell depicted in classical Kamasan-style Balinese paintings. Is this the “battle between good and evil” frequently quoted by tour guides as a means of making such puzzling imagery intelligible to their foreign guests? Such simplistic readings do justice neither to the complexity of Balinese philosophical concepts, nor to Budiana’s works which are inspired by them.

We begin with power, transformation, generation and creation on a cosmic scale - the teeming, spawning reproduction of life in the physical world, the fusing together of separate elements to create new entities and new life. From the largest canvasses to the smallest works on paper, Budiana’s paintings convey a kind of explosion of physical force and power. There are turbulent masses of clouds, waves, storms - a world of seething movement - natural shapes changing form into other unexpected and strange transformations and deformations. Seething, steaming, hissing, boiling, churning, these images reflect the fluidity and unbounded nature of physical matter continually being reformed and recreated. The movement is outward and up, as of some explosion of force at the centre. Budiana depicts a cosmos in which entities are constantly taking form and dissolving form to become something new. Acting upon the five elements of the material world (pancamahabhuta) - earth, water, fire, wind and ether - are unseen forces and powers that destroy and then shape anew. Budiana does not simply depict a shapeless chaos, he seeks to discern the principles underlying the constant cycle of transformations.

For this reason he is preoccupied with desire, both in the form of erotic desire, and in the form of greed, the desire to consume. Both kinds of desire have positive and negative aspects. The desire to devour, gobble, engulf, epitomised by Budiana’s greedy monsters and witches is loathsome and disturbing. Yet by dissolving entities back into their original components (the pancamahabhuta), these elements can be recombined as new life. This process is referred to in Balinese and Indonesian as “lebur”. The god Siwa is said to be the “pelebur” of the natural world, the principle that smelts down matter to its basic elements and thus allows the emergence of new life forms. In its positive aspect, this desire to consume is connected with the force that reunifies the elements, and is present in the passionate need to merge with another, whether this be with a human lover, or at the highest level, unity with god (moksa).

The tension of erotic desire as a force drawing together opposites is an important recurring theme in Budiana’s works. Some are manifestly erotic, others depict strange meetings which must be studied more closely to reveal their import. The significance of such meetings, at whatever level - human, animal, demonic or divine - is that they are creative. The meeting of male and female, father and mother, is not merely the meeting of opposites. More importantly, such meetings result in a third element, the conception of a new life. In the esoteric teaching of the lontar texts, the union of male and female is represented as a meeting between fire and water. Monstrous creatures and human beings alike are born of the same creative meeting of opposites. In Budiana’s more symbolic representations, the meeting is not necessarily a genital coupling, the two forces may merge together at any or various points. The masculine principle, represented by water, moves downwards to touch fire, the feminine principle, which naturally moves upwards. The third element, that which is created out of the meeting, is always present, and is indicated in various ways. For example, in the painting titled Rwa Bineda (acrylic on paper, 76 x 60 cm), the demonic white face appearing below and centrally between two larger grotesque figures represents the birth of the demonic forces, the bhutakala, from the coupling of Siwa and Uma in their terrible manifestations of Siwa Kala and Durga.

From the mysterious marriage of fire and water also issues the atma or soul, that spark of divine power or godnature which is present in all living beings. Male and female also represent spirit and matter; the creation of a new living being involves the fusion of matter and spirit. This process is symbolised in the meeting of water and fire, whereby the two opposites are neutralised. In the extinguishing of fire by water, a third element, steam or vapour, arises representing the non-material, spiritual product of the union. In turn, this vapour later transforms back into water and returns to the earth, like the human soul in its multiple rebirths on earth.

Budiana’s works are especially an exploration of the creative feminine principle, the mother. Budiana focuses on the mother as the means through which material form is taken, through which the separate elements are recombined. The witch (leyak) who has the power to change into terrifying shapes, who brings disease, death and haunts the graveyard searching for decomposing corpses, also represents the power of the mother. In this frightening aspect, the mother, as devourer of corpses, dissolves (lebur) dead matter in her belly so that it can be returned to its original components, just as in her gentle manifestation, the mother recombines the original constituents to give birth. The grave and the womb are but two aspects of the one process.

Magic or mystical power (sakti) is linked to the power of the mother to give shape to material existence, to create entities in the material world. The feminine aspect of godpower is referred to as “sakti”; the masculine aspect is pure spirit and has no interest in or concern with the material world. Only through his sakti, or female energy, is god drawn to or involved in the world. Thus it is not Siwa who creates the earth, but his sakti, Uma, who through her yoga creates all aspects of the material universe. Sakti involves using divine energy to influence and brings about changes in the physical world. Human beings can acquire sakti by worshipping Durga, the mother goddess Uma in her terrible and destructive manifestation. That is to say, magic originates from the mother, it is the power of the mother, and those who desire it must engage with the mother in her most terrifying forms. The monstrous images with which Budiana confronts us are images of power - desire, destruction, energy, power, force - yet desire and destruction are both essential in the material world, inescapable. They are part of the nature of matter, at the centre of the mystery of life. There is nothing evil in the natural world; as Budiana himself says, “If something is evil why did god create it? It must have a purpose.” Only the ways in which people deploy these powers are good or evil. The witch (leyak) is not evil if she functions as the processor of dead matter in the graveyard.

The further mystery is that all of this seething mass of cosmic conflict - creative and destructive - also lies within the self. Balinese esoteric teachings concerning the macrocosmos and the microcosmos assert that everything that exists in the outer world is to be found in the self, therefore to understand one, is to understand the other. Encountering the self, and plumbing its depths, is thus the way of both the sorcerer or witch who seeks sakti, and the way of the sage, who aspires to unity with god. In Budiana’s view, only by exploring and understanding the darkest and most forbidding reaches of the self, can one gain the power that lies therein. Human beings, creatures whose bodies are composed of physical elements, and whose thoughts, actions and desires are inevitably influenced by these gross physical elements, must first encounter their bhutakala or demonic level before they can realise their potential to achieve spiritual purity and union with god.

The dark colours employed in Budiana’s paintings suggest the mystery of the cosmos. Apart from black and white, the only other colours usually appearing are small touches of red and yellow. Together the four colours (black, white, red and yellow) represent the four cardinal directions, and the four mystical siblings, known as the Kanda Empat, who connect each individual to the forces of the unseen world (niskala). As human beings, we can only glimpse the mysterious shapes and forces surrounding us; as forms emerge from dark and secret places we try to capture them, only to see them dissolve in front of us. Those who seek sakti must visualise, create out of their own thought, the forms and images of their desires (just as, according to esoteric teachings, the universe was created out of the yoga of the gods). They share with the mother, with the gods - and with the artist - this capacity to give form to the formless.

Here, yet a further mystery emerges. In Balinese esoteric teachings, as Budiana shows us, bhutakala (demons) and dewa (gods) are not totally opposed categories of good and evil - rather they represent different forms or states of the same powers. Gods take demonic form, and in turn demons become gods. The lontar “Siwagama” tells the story of how Siwa, when angry, takes the form on earth of the monstrous Siwa Kala, and his wife, Uma, takes angry form as the terrible Durga. In these monstrous forms the creator god and goddess meet to give birth to hosts of bhutakala, all the dangerous and destructive forces on earth, whereupon they and their offspring proceed to devour humanity and destroy the earth. When offered appropriate sacrifices and worship, Siwa Kala, Durga and the bhutakala resume their previous gentle forms and return to Heaven. This transformation from monstrous to godlike form is also possible for human beings since each contains within the self these same powers and their opposite potentials. For Budiana, exploring the material nature of our being, that which issues from the cosmic feminine principle - Uma in the mythology - is the first step on the path to knowing ourselves. He begins with the monstrous and destructive aspect of the mother’s power - Uma as Durga, the mother as witch, the earth (Ibu Pertiwi) as the source of terrible power. Yet the mother, at whatever level, creates, gives birth and nourishes.

Budiana’s paintings are replete with imagery of grotesque and hideous mothers, some like great slugs or worms, others with huge udders and bodies like cows, yet all tenderly giving suck to their equally monstrous infants. There are also sad human mothers, dragged down by the burden of bearing, nourishing and caring for their numerous offspring, who cling to them like so many leeches. Though drained, frail and seemingly unequal to the task, these human mothers also possess hidden powers and energy - power which can be secretly transformed into witchcraft. Those who provide life and nourishment from their own bodies can use the same powers to bring disease, death and destruction. The witch (leyak) is the ultimate shape changer, transforming her soft, graceful, desirable mother’s body into monstrous and terrifying shapes. Budiana’s works swarm with witches, exuding blood and fire from their genitals, their huge snake-like tongues assuming strange phallic forms. Greed, anger and destruction are the ways of the witch, the opposite face of the nurturing mother.

Also depicted are huge and frightening shapes which seem to bear no visible connection to the mother. Menacing faces peer out of clouds and rocks, grotesque creatures slither from trees, giants crouch on mountain peaks or shake the ground with their thunderous tread; yet these also emanate from the mother since all entities and powers found in the physical world are her creations, her offspring. All represent the power of the mother, the powers of the natural world around us. They are huge, terrifying, potentially destructive, depending upon how we see them and how we try to deal with them. Budiana’s threatening imagery challenges us to recognise that all this comes from the same divine source, the mother goddess, Uma, in her many manifestations - Saraswati, Dewi Sri, Dewi Danu, Durga. She is truly both creator and destroyer; moreover her dual nature is to be found in each one of us. So we must begin to understand the mystery of human existence by embracing her in both her aspects. This necessarily involves a movement downward, into the secret depths of our physical being, into the desires and passions that are generated by being material creatures in a material world. The descent into the unconscious mind is not an end in itself, it is ultimately directed towards attaining spiritual awareness and approaching the divine source of all power. This is a movement upwards, and away from the dark depths of our material being.
The direction of this inner journey is depicted in the painting Padma (ink and acrylic on paper, 51 x 37 cm), which offers a kind of synthesis of Budiana’s views. The strangely distorted central figure represents the seeker after spiritual truth. The figure kneels with its left foot on the back of a cow - the mother earth. To the back of this can be glimpsed the head of Bedawang, the cosmic turtle, which according to Balinese belief balances the cosmos on its back. The right foot of the figure is climbing up the tail of the cow, which transforms into a white flag, through which can be seen the image of Acintya, the high god. This reveals that the aim is spiritual purity, freedom from the body, and union with god (moksa) - all symbolised by the white flag. Unfolding in the centre of the body of the figure is the padma or lotus of the title. According to Balinese philosophy, the lotus, which grows up out of mud into the water and then emerges into the air to bloom, symbolises the three stages of human spiritual development. The snake found just below the three lotuses represents kundalini, a kind of inner power generated, through yogic practices, from the lower part of the body (the seat of material desire, greed and impurity) harnessing sexual and other energies to generate the refined spiritual power represented by the three lotuses. Thus like the lotus, kundalini emerges from impurity and filth to open as an exquisite flower in the pure air. The three lotuses and their colours also stand for the gods, Brahma (red), Wisnu (black), and Siwa (multicoloured). This reveals that godpower resides inside us and that we can, through spiritual practices, realise this potential within us. The strange serpentine neck turns to the left side of the body, then coils down, behind and under the genitals, emerging at the front of the body, between the legs, and rises upwards, bearing the weeping head of the seeker of truth, which is held by the right hand in such a way that the figure is clearly observing its own face. The movement of the head on its long snake-like neck, represents consciousness, revealing the need to encounter and know oneself via an inner, downward journey, an encounter that ultimately leads to the upward movement of the soul (atma) towards the divine source of all.

Budiana’s work draws the viewer to this deep encounter with the self, to recognise that all of the dark, threatening and monstrous imagery conjured in his paintings is to be found in ourselves, and when confronted courageously in consciousness, becomes the means of achieving spiritual awareness and development. Budiana’s work presents us with a subtle challenge: Behold yourself!

Ketut Budiana was born in 1950 in Padangtegal, Ubud, Bali. He studied briefly with the Dutch painter Rudolf Bonnet, and from 1969 to 1972 he studied at the Indonesian School of Fine Art and the Teachers’ Vocational Secondary School in Denpasar. Since 1972 Budiana has taught at several schools and is currently a teacher at the Senior High School of Arts, Batubulan. He has been a leader in the Yayasan Ratna Wartha (Gems of Discovery Foundation) in Ubud since 1980.
Budiana comes from a family of traditional master artisans and is skilled at making temple images, masks for sacred performances, and cremation artifacts. As well as being a painter, Budiana is also a sculptor in wood and stone. He specializes in carving the great bull-shaped coffins used for cremation, and in sculpting statues of awesome guardian figures for temples. Much of his time is spent in creating works for local temples, time which he gives freely as his gift of service to the gods (ngayah). In all this he follows family tradition; his paternal grandfather was an artist (sangging) and architect (undagi), and Budiana learnt his trade as a sculptor when a boy, assisting his grandfather carve the temple facade at the Pura Dalem, Padangtegal, Ubud.
Budiana’s paintings can be found in the collections of the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Museum of Ethnology, Berlin, Germany; Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan; Museum Puri Lukisan, Ubud, Bali; Neka Museum, Ubud, Bali; Agung Rai Museum of Art, Ubud, Bali; Art Centre, Denpasar, Bali; Rudana Museum, Ubud, Bali.
Recent exhibitions include solo exhibition at the Agung Rai Museum of Art, Ubud (2000); “Ogoh-Ogoh Project”, Barcelona, Spain (1998); Indonesia-Japan Friendship Festival, Morioka, Japan (1997); “Modern Balinese Paintings”, Tokyo (1997); Museum Nasional, Jakarta (1995); “Ogoh-Ogoh Project”, Seattle, USA (1995). Budiana has also participated in exhibitions at the Singapore Art Museum (1994); World Presidents Organization, Washington D.C., USA (1992); Rudana Gallery, Peliatan (1991); Festival of Indonesia travelling exhibition, USA (1990-92); Puri Lukisan, Ubud (1973 and 1988); Tropenmuseum, Holland (1979 and 1986); Tokyo (1986); National Museum, Fukuoka, Japan (1985); Art Centre, Denpasar (1979-91); Sydney, Australia (1977); solo exhibition at Puri Lukisan Museum, Ubud (1976); Taman Ismail Marzuki Art Centre, Jakarta (1975-77); Jakarta (1974).

[published in exhibition catalogue, Ketut Budiana: Behold Yourself, on the occasion of solo exhibitions at Agung Rai Museum of Art, Ubud, Bali; Latrobe University, Melbourne, Australia; and Barcelona, Spain in 2000.]