by Michele Stephen

For the western observer, Budiana’s paintings are amazing concoctions of fantasy, often nightmare, imagery. Although the images are exotic, they seem somehow familiar, as if in the depths of dream or nightmare we have all glimpsed similar phantasmagoric landscapes and demonic forms, yet shied away from facing them in the light of day. With Budiana, the viewer is taken on a disquietening and yet exhilarating inner journey. At once attracted, compelled, and then sucked into the vortex of this other world, the observer is no longer observer, but caught up in a dynamic play of rapidly transforming images, now grotesque, now horrific, now sublime.

To the Balinese observer, who brings different expectations and draws upon different knowledge to appreciate Budiana’s work, it is apparent that these pulsing images reflect a deep esoteric knowledge. They represent not so much the untrammelled fantasy of an eccentric individuality (as it might appear to the Westerner), as the products of an austere spiritual discipline, the fruit of a rich cultural tradition realized through individual effort and talent. In Bali, the artist (whether painter, sculptor, musician, or performer) is expected to be a repository of cultural knowledge, and, in the execution of his or her art, a teacher. The artist requires an extensive knowledge of mythology, of the great Hindu Epics, the Mahabrahta and the Ramayana, of legends and folktales, of ritual and religion in general. Budiana’s paintings draw upon all these sources, especially the lontar - hand-inscribed books which are compendiums of sacred and esoteric knowledge. The “magic drawings” (rarajahan) or talismans contained in the lontar provide the inspiration for many of Budiana’s most disturbing images.

Budiana is not only painter, he is also a sculptor in wood and stone. He specializes in mask making for sacred performances, 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 as a boy assisting his grandfather carve the temple facade at the Pura Dalem, Monkey Forest. Exemplifying the Balinese ethic that the artist is also a teacher, Budiana teaches at the Senior High School of Arts, Batubulan, sharing his skills and knowledge with the next generation of artists. In all these respects, Budiana’s life and work are deeply embedded in the traditions of Balinese community life and religion.

Undoubtedly his Western admirers can enjoy Budiana’s paintings without knowing the exact source of each image. Yet I believe that some knowledge of the traditional themes which inform his work can add to our understanding and appreciation. The series of paintings entitled “Saraswati”, which forms a centre piece in this exhibition, does not, at first glance, seem to have any clear unity or single theme. The Western observer might well wonder why they are grouped as a series. When I asked the artist to explain some of the figures, the six paintings were gradually revealed as an interlinked reflection on the nature of esoteric knowledge in Balinese culture. I can only summarize here, but even such a brief encounter can be illuminating.

Painting I: Saraswati (Goddess of Knowledge)
We begin with a panorama of clouds and to one side, the four-armed figure of Saraswati, Goddess of letters, literature, music and art. Her graceful figure and serene face, wreathed by a golden crown, reflect the beauty and value of knowledge. In one hand she holds forth - like a bouquet of flowers dropping their petals - a lontar book, hand-inscribed on palm leaf pages strung together with a fine cord. According to the artist, the open book which Saraswati offers so invitingly is the precious knowledge freely available to all who can read the lontar. All knowledge required to penetrate even the deepest secrets of esoteric and magical knowledge is contained therein.

Yet this, of course, is a kind of paradox, since in the past only a small proportion of the populace was literate and able to read the lontar, and today few Balinese, in their haste to acquire Western technology and education, have the time or motivation to learn the difficult script and abstruse language of the lontar. Yet for those willing to devote themselves to the beautiful Saraswati, the way is there. And surrounding the goddess, and from which she emerges as the single definite form, are these the clouds of unknowing, of ignorance? The artist explains that human beings are limited in their capacity to understand the vastness that surrounds them. Even with Saraswati’s help, we only hope to gain a little understanding, which is why the goddess appears so small and fragile, almost lost, in swelling clouds and formless space.

II - Saudara Empat (The Four Siblings)

Suddenly from out of the clouds, with a kind of explosion of energy, appear four burly, fierce-looking figures, and at their centre, a strange homunculus, or embryo figure, contained in a transparent sac and surrounded by cloud. As explained in the lontar, these are the kanda mpat, the four siblings who are born with each person. Throughout the person’s life, they act as guardians and protectors, providing they are given the appropriate ritual care. At birth they are present in the placenta, the amniotic fluid, the blood and the navel cord. Throughout the person’s life cycle, they change their name, form and function many times; and via their different levels and manifestations, they are the keys to gaining esoteric, magical powers.

This painting depicts the Kanda Mpat Sari, the human level. This is the level that is employed by the traditional healer, the balian, to gain powers to cure illness and treat injuries. Each of the kanda mpat is associated with a particular direction, colour and natural element We see to the left of the painting, a red-coloured figure surrounded by fire, whose direction is south; the figure at the bottom of the painting is white, represents wind, and his direction is east; in the centre is a figure surrounded by yellow light, his direction is west; and to the far right is a black figure whose flowing hair and beard reveals his element as water, his direction is north. Between the four guardians floats, in its amniotic sac, the human being. Through ritual knowledge revealed in the lontar, the small and helpless human being can learn to control the magical abilities possessed by his or her four mystical siblings.

III: Kekuatan Rwa Bineda (The Power of Cosmic Opposites)

Although the title of this painting might seem strange, the scene depicted is familiar even to the casual tourist: Barong and Rangda engaged in their never-ending conflict. In between them are the kris dancers attacking Rangda, and then turning their daggers upon themselves. Rwa Bineda is the cosmic play of complementary oppositions: darkness and light, earth and sky, life and death, creation and destruction, male and female, right and left, positive and negative. These forces cannot, however, be considered “good” and “bad” since such are moral distinctions pertaining only to the human world. Here we are dealing with cosmological oppositions, forces beyond the limitations of human understanding.

Why do the ropes of clouds which link the kanda mpat in the previous painting extend into this depiction of Rangda and Barong? Budiana explains that Barong and Rangda represent another level of the kanda mpat - the Kanda Mpat Buta or the demonic level. The sorcerer who desires power to inflict illness and to kill, must ritually develop this buta level. Such dangerous knowledge is also contained in the lontar. When I first asked about the title of this painting, Budiana replied that it was “The Power of the Mother”, explaining that the feminine principle is drawn upon in sorcery and witchcraft. When Rangda waves her white cloth (kreb) at the kris dancers they turn their knives upon themselves. When Barong comes, they return to consciousness. Rangda here is the personification of the destructive power of the mother, in other words, the buta or demonic form of the feminine principle. Although the male generative principle also has its demonic form, represented by Barong, it is Rangda, the demonic mother, who reigns over the world of leyak (witches) and pengiwa (literally, “the left hand” - i.e. sorcery). Women, since they are the human embodiment of this principle, inherently possess sakti (magical power to bring about changes in the material world), and they are particularly suited to its destructive uses.

IV: Kekuatan Pengiwa (The Power of the Left)
In this painting the proclivity of women for destructive magical powers is revealed. Here a female balian (healer) is instructing a group of women seeking to become leyak (witches). She is inscribing magic drawings (rarajahan) on the tongue of an acolyte. The tongue takes on special significance because it is this which pronounces the mantra (prayers or spells) employed in witchcraft, moreover the huge, flaming tongue of Rangda represents overwhelming greed and desire. The spells and the magic drawings and talismans employed by the witches are, of course, to be found in the lontar.

To the left of this painting we can see what appears to be a great gold flame. This is the kayonan, a figure used in the shadow puppet theatre (wayang kulit) which represents trees, forests and mountains. According to the artist, here it symbolises the magical forces (banas) that resides in large trees and other natural forms, and which can be harnessed by human beings - we can just glimpse a demonic animal head over the kayonan. Banas Pati Raja is a name given both to the Barong and to one of the Kanda Mpat, revealing that the power of “banas” connects the two.

V:Bentuk Kekuatan Pengiwa (The Shapes of the Left Hand Power)
Here are the horrible and distorted shapes which the leyak take on in order to wreck harm and destruction. The nature of these bestial transformations and how to achieve them are also explained in precise detail in the lontar. One of the first levels of transformation is a monkey, and in the top right corner of the picture we can glimpse the prancing form of a half-ape, half-woman (still with the flaming tongue of the acolytes of the previous picture). Her shaggy tail intertwines with that of a crowned tiger, echoing the forms of Barong and Rangda, and the Kanda Empat Buta as depicted in the lontar.

Although women have a natural affinity with destructive magical powers, such are by no means confined to them. The grotesque hermaphrodite monsters of this painting indicate that the male and female cosmic principles represented by Barong and Randga are potentials existing in every human being (and contained in the kanda mpat). Men too may ritually appropriate the powers of the terrible mother, although, paradoxically, this is achieved by devotion to the beautiful goddess of knowledge. At the top middle of the painting we see the swan vehicle supporting the lower half of the body of Saraswati. The artist explains this indicates that the form of knowledge employed here is of a lower level - yet it still originates from Saraswati through the lontar books. Thus knowledge, in both its lowest and highest forms, originates in the feminine principle.

VI: Menarik Kekuatan Pengiwa dari Alam (Drawing the Power of the Left from the Natural World)
The final painting depicts the power of the natural world; the power of storms and lightening; of fire and water. We can just glimpse the form of a naga (dragon), suggesting lightening, and a monstrous face, suggesting wind, to the top left. Yet this realm of natural power is essentially amorphous - just seething forces of fire and water, of cosmic oppositions. The sorcerer draws upon this realm to transform him or her self, as instructed in the lontar, so that formless power is given a specific shape, and may be used to human ends. It is through the action of the sorcerer’s imagination upon the formless powers of the natural world, that the horrendous transformations depicted in the previous painting are achieved.
Here, it seems, in the midst of unformed and uncontrolled natural powers, we are back with the goddess who emerges from the clouds of unknowing to bestow knowledge on human beings. The six paintings form not a linear series but a circle. All knowledge has the same source - a divine source - symbolized by the beautiful goddess. How the knowledge is realized and used in the human world is a matter of human choice. If we develop the demonic side of our potentiality, we can obtain great powers, but in doing so we transform ourselves into hideous and despicable creatures, deformed, perverted and grotesque, a travesty of human potential.


There is another level of the kanda mpat - the Kanda Mpat Dewa - the god potential. Budiana does not represent it in this series. Perhaps by its omission, he challenges us to ponder on the proper use of knowledge, the source of which is divine, but the use of which may be truly demonic. In Budiana’s reflection on the nature of traditional, esoteric knowledge, we can hardly escape the realization that he also challenges the misuse of knowledge in a technocratic age where a consuming quest for profit and power is causing horrific transformations in the world around us, and in ourselves.

Each of the paintings in this exhibition might be read in a similar manner, or in yet other ways, to uncover multiple meanings. Each work draws upon the rich resources of Balinese mythology, religion and philosophy; and each expresses Budiana’s personal reflections on these themes. Budiana’s art is deeply rooted in the culture of Bali, yet he breathes new life into these forms through the power of his own unique visionary imagination. His is no pretty exoticism that we can admire and then quickly dismiss. The brooding images he presents seem to have been drawn up from the depths of our own secret fears and hidden desires. Thus ultimately his art transcends the cultural forms from which it originates. Budiana shows us that, like god-power, art has countless manifestations, but ultimately springs from the one source.

* Michele Stephen, November 1997