by Michele Stephen
For the western observer, Budianas 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,
To the Balinese observer, who brings different expectations and draws upon different
knowledge to appreciate Budianas 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.
Budianas 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 Budianas 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, Budianas life and work are deeply embedded
in the traditions of Balinese community life and religion.
Undoubtedly his Western admirers can enjoy Budianas 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 Saraswatis 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 persons 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 persons 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
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 sorcerers 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 Budianas 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 Budianas
personal reflections on these themes. Budianas 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