BALI, paradise created

by Michelle Chin

In the last ten years this island has been written about, filmed, photographed, and gushed over to an extent which would justify nausea. I went there half-unwillingly, for I expected a complete "bali-hoo", picturesque and faked to a Hollywood standard; I left there wholly unwillingly, convinced that I had seen the nearest approach to Utopia that I am ever to see. (Geoffrey Gorer, Bali and Angkor, Or Looking at Life and Death, 1936: 42-43)

Why is Bali is so fascinating? (Is Bali actually so fascinating?) Was Bali ever a paradise, or was it paradise created for the needs of a foreign (and later, domestic) tourist market? These issues have been discussed in great detail in books such as Adrian Vickers’ Bali, A Paradise Created (Periplus Editions, 1989) and Timothy Lindsey’s The Romance of K’tut Tantri and Indonesia (Oxford University Press, 1997).

If Bali is indeed paradise created, then where better to look than the world of film, including Hollywood, where dreams become reality. If we look briefly at the history of Western films about Bali made in the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s, a picture emerges of the concept of Bali as paradise created in the 20th century.

The remote little island only became news to the rest of the Western world with the advent, a few years ago, of a series of documentary films of Bali with a strong emphasis on sex appeal. These films were a revelation and now everybody knows that Balinese girls have beautiful bodies and that the islanders lead a musical-comedy sort of life full of weird, picturesque rites. The title of one of these films, Goona-goona, the Balinese term for "magic", became at the time newyorkese for sex allure. The newly discovered "last paradise" became the contemporary substitute for the nineteenth-century romantic conception of primitive Utopia, until then the exclusive monopoly of Tahiti and other South Sea islands. And lately travel agencies have used the alluring name of Bali to attract hordes of tourists for their round-the-world cruises that make a one-day stop on the island.
(Miguel Covarrubias, Island of Bali, 1937)

Actual organised tourism came to Bali in the 1920's. By 1930 up to 100 visitors a month were arriving, mostly by sea. Their ecstatic reports were so positive that by 1940 this figure had increased to about 250 per month, not including the passengers on the various cruise ships that advertised a day or two in Bali as the highlight of their winter schedules.

The Dutch Steamship Line, K.P.M., initiated the first tourist passages to Bali on its cargo ships and several enterprising characters were quick to take advantage of these developments. A Persian-Armenian, M.J. Minas, was the first to realise the tourist potential. He introduced moving pictures to the villages, travelling with a portable projector, and he established the first movie theatre in Buleleng. Minas started picking up passengers off the K.P.M. ships in about 1920. An American adventurer, Andre Roosevelt, arrived in Bali in 1924 and joined Minas, bringing American Express and Thomas Cook patronage with him. Andre Roosevelt undertook in the 1920s to develop the tourist market, although this did not deter him from suggesting measures to preserve the integrity of Balinese society and its culture:

Having leisure, my friend Spies and I started a scheme which would tend to slow down the invading forces from the West and keep the Balinese in their happy, contented ways for a few decades longer ….. We want to make of Bali a national or international park, with special laws to maintain it as such.
(in Hickman Powell, The Last Paradise, 1930: xiv-xvi)

Bali Movies in the 1920s and 1930s
Goona-Goona was most likely the movie which inspired K'tut Tantri, author of Revolt in Paradise, and later famous as Surabaya Sue, to travel to Bali in 1932:

It was a rainy afternoon and, walking down Hollywood Boulevard, I stopped before a small theatre showing a foreign film and on the spur of the moment, decided to go in. The film was entitled Bali, the Last Paradise. I became entranced. The picture was aglow with an agrarian pattern of peace, contentment, beauty and love. Yes, I had found my life. I recognised the place where I wished to be.
(K'tut Tantri, Revolt in Paradise, 1960)

The film was very successful and actually started an American craze for all things Balinese. In New York high society goona-goona, a Malay and Javanese term for love magic, was turned into a popular phrase. Goona-Goona can be credited with linking sex and magic in the popular image of Bali.

Bali Movies in the 1950s
The Bali scene of the 1920s and 1930s was an escape from Europe and America, from the values of the West to a spiritually deeper and richer world. In the post-war era Bali was one of the balms to soothe a traumatised world. In this era of renewed interest in both the East and the Pacific, Broadway hits like The King and I and South Pacific gained enormous popularity first on stage and subsequently on screen. The 1950s version of these ideal places was even further removed from reality than the 1930s images. Broadway and Hollywood produced images that would try to recapture the lost world of the pre-war era. In doing this, they actually created something that never was.

In the Hollywood of the pre-war era the Indies were regarded as one part of the South Seas islands, and were most memorably featured as the place where the gigantic gorilla King Kong was found in the film of the same name. In the 1930s Primitive art and culture were at the heart of both intellectual and popular interest, featuring in the art of Picasso and the Surrealists as well as the dances of Josephine Baker. One aspect of this interest in Primitivism was the emphasis on the sexual and magical aspects of Bali. By the 1950s Hollywood was replacing them with more idyllic ideas.

Directed by Harry Tugend for Paramount Pictures in 1952, and starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, The Road to Bali is the ultimate amalgam of images of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Under the guise of humour the movie managed to include cannibals, wild animals and a giant squid, as well as Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn pulling The African Queen. The plot, had Hope and Crosby fleeing from a pair of 'matrimony-minded girls' in Australia to 'a South Sea island' (Bali), where they met Dorothy Lamour playing a beautiful princess and island adventurer who was seeking sunken treasure. Lamour's famous sarongs were combined with various bits of apparel from Thailand, India and other parts of Asia.

Directed by Joshua Logan for Twentieth Century Fox in 1958, the 'Bali Hai' of South Pacific had nothing directly to do with the people who lived in Bali in the 1930s, but everything to do with Bali's image. When searching for an island which would be the ultimate encapsulation of all the ideals of the era, the name Bali came readily to mind. Little matter that the island shown as Bali Hai was not in the right ocean, the name and the soothing sea-breeze-like notes of the hit song were enough. Hollywood, never worried about geographical niceties, made Bali the paradise of paradises by combining all the ideals of the South Seas into one.

Bali “TEMPTATION” / BALI YANG MENGGODA, exhibition of contemporary Balinese artists at Galeri Langgeng, June 2004

What are the preoccupations of the 15 artists participating in the exhibition at Galeri Langgeng in June 2004? How do these artists cope with their Balinese-ness? Do they even consider that they were born in “paradise” or that their home island can be described as “Island of the Gods”? Is their Balinese identity important to them? Is it important to those who collect art? While the (short) time restrictions did not allow me to talk to each of the artists one by one, I will nevertheless make a few points and ask a few questions, and then it will be time for the Balinese artists to speak up and let their (Balinese) voices be heard! Notorious (at least in Jogja) for disliking art discussions in general, the Balinese as a group have been written about by (non-Balinese) Indonesians and foreigners for far too long. I hope that soon there will be more Balinese who write about Balinese artists and their preoccupations, or alternatively we might even stop talking about the Balinese artists as a group and look at them as individuals placed within the big picture of Indonesian and international art. After all, while we often read about contemporary art in Jogjakarta, or artists who were educated in Bandung, we (fortunately) do not read too often about “Javanese artists” or “Sumatran artists” in generalised terms.

Of the 15 artists participating in this exhibition, 12 were educated at ISI/Indonesian Institute of Art, Yogyakarta. Regarding the eductaion and art training of the remaining three artists, Made Supena is a graduate of the Study program for Art and Design, University Udayana, Denpasar; Ketut Susena studied for some time at ISI Denpasar; and Dewa Putu Mokoh was trained in the traditional manner, having studied Balinese wayang style painting with his uncles I Gusti Ketut Kobot and I Gusti Made Baret, before eventually developing his own signature style of contemporary (Balinese) painting.

Eight of the artists currently live in Bali and 7 of them live in Jogja, although the latter 7 move back and forth between Bali and Jogja regularly. In some ways, the group of artists participating in this exhibition can be said to themselves exhibit either a Jogja-centric or Bali-centric lifestyle or approach to art in general. Clearly, those artists who studied in academies in Jogja or Bali have been influenced by the trends and practices occurring in the wider context of contemporary Indonesian art.

Quite apart from the question of whether Bali is a paradise or not, or whether the artists themselves or others are fascinated by the idea of Bali, it may be safe to assume that all 15 artists are preoccupied with the big issues of life: God, Nature, Man. We can quite safely assume that these artists are thinking about their relationship to God (or some greater power), the environment or nature, and their relationship to society, their place in the community – just as non-Balinese must do if we wish to live our lives in a harmonious manner. The Balinese (artists) are preoccupied with the various issues of everyday life, including love and sex, rituals and ceremonies, games and entertainments, nature, society and community, politics and economy, death, disease and disasters – just as we are. The mystery of God, the beauty of nature, the ugliness of man – all of these issues, themes and subjects appear in their art work.

Two of the artists in the exhibition present works dealing with the issues of love and sex. Dewa Putu Mokoh (born 1934) is particularly noted for his humorous depictions of sexuality, love and peeping toms or “tricksy hands” – a hand emerges to squeeze a girl’s nipple or a naughty hand quietly and deftly pulls off a girl’s sarong as she sleeps, unaware that the boy/man is privately enjoying her beauty. Having painted in the neo-traditional Ubud and Pengosekan styles up to about 1989, Mokoh then developed his own signature style after collaborating with an Italian artist friend, Mondo. Dewa Putu Mokoh is fascinated with everyday life: childbirth, love, sex, children’s games, religious ceremonies, news reports that he sees on television – all become material for his paintings. Although his subject matter is often depicted in what appears to be a simple, child-like manner, his paintings are created in the painstaking and time-consuming method he learnt from his uncles Kobot and Bret: first doing a pencil sketch, then applying the ink outlines and shadings and finally he applies the various colours.

The only sculptor participating in this show, Gusti Made Wirta has focussed on the issues of sexuality and physical love for some years, having created a series of work depicting the phallus in both realistic and abstract styles.

Nyoman Erawan (born 1958) is a painter, installation artist and performance artist who has created several “art performance extravaganzas”. His craft-like paintings often incorporate the traditional motifs of Balinese architecture, textiles and images of “ritual garbage” – the leftover bits and pieces that one sees at the completion of any Balinese religious ceremony. Erawan “documents” the (Balinese) world around him: he is perhaps more of a craftsman in his approach to art. His subject matter creates conflicting impressions and images: personal purification as public entertainment; sacred paraphernalia and religious shrines relocated to secular spaces; traditional motifs and symbols depicted with modern materials. Erawan recycles and documents the imagery of traditional Bali in modern space and time. Of all the artists exhibiting in this exhibition, perhaps it is the work of Nyoman Erawan that most strongly retains its Balinese “look”, whether the Balinese-ness that we see is a religious symbol, ritual object, or the artist’s own (Balinese) face.

Made Budhiana (born 1959) has long been noted for his abstract expressionist style (or, according to Dr Oei Hong Djien: “semi abstrak ekspressionisme”). Budhiana has been an important figure in the Indonesian art scene since the mid-1980s: he was twice awarded the prestigious Pratisara Affandi Adhi Karya by ISI Yogyakarta in 1985 and 1986, and his style has influenced many of the younger generation of artists in Jogja and Bali including Made Sukadana, Entang Wiharso, Nyoman Sukari, Made Sumadiyasa and Putu Sutawijaya who nevertheless went on to develop their own individual styles.

Budhiana paints from gut instinct, like a child, not rationalising and conceptualising. He expresses whatever is within him at the time, often reflecting his environment and surroundings whether he is in the studio surrounded by friends and listening to a particular type of music, or outdoors in nature where he responds to the natural phenomena of wind, cloud, weather conditions, mountains, cliffs, beaches and ocean, sun, stars, moon and so on. He often paints outdoors in crowded spaces with lots of people milling around, such as at the market, on the beach, on the streets of the city or in a temple. In his paintings on canvas he often completely fills the space: while leaving little of the space untouched, he creates negative space with the daring use of white. Budhiana’s works on paper are usually more sparsely composed, showing great skill in the application or inclusion of negative space. All of his work reflects spontaneous mood and intuitive feeling, unhesitating strength of line, and striking combinations of pure, unmixed colours. His work is “liar tapi rapi” - wild and thoughtfully composed at the same time.

Of the artists influenced by Made Budhiana’s abstract expressionist style, Nyoman Sukari (born 1968), has since the early 1990s shown great imagination and strength in his “wild” paintings depicting mythological figures such as Barong, Rangda, naga serpents, warriors and heroes. His paintings are magical, expressive outpourings onto canvas, created with broad brush strokes and mainly dark tones.

Sukari’s painting technique is similar to that of Djoko Pekik in that he uses his canvas as his palette, applying his oil paint onto canvas using the wet-on-wet method, a Chinese brush technique. In general he uses only a few basic colours: black, red, blue. He may pick up three colours at a time, and instead of mixing and blending them on his artist’s palette, he applies the brush directly onto the canvas so that the three colours run simultaneously in one brush stroke. The blending is done by going over the same stroke once or twice while the oil is still wet, and he also allows some of the oil to drip down the canvas, creating textural variation to the work as a whole. The resulting colours and drip effects are amazingly lively. With this technique, Sukari is able to create layers of colours coming through each stroke. There is rhythm, movement and translucence at the same time.

Using the wet-on-wet technique, a painting can be completed very quickly because there is no need to wait for a layer of oil to dry before the next stroke is applied. However, it should be noted that with this particular technique - in combination with the required spontaneous outburst of emotion and expression - there may be times when a painting simply does not work. At those times, the artist will have to reject or discard the painting and start again on a fresh piece of canvas because this method of painting leaves little room for error and no room for correction. Using the wet-on-wet technique, the artist must adopt a “go-for-broke” approach.

Several of the other artists participating in this exhibition show a preference for the abstract expressionist style of painting. Made Sukadana (born 1966) created paintings of abstracted faces in the early 1990s, and Sukari-esque abstract expressionist paintings in the late 1990s Sukadana has often used subject matter inspired by Javanese wayang and Balinese mythology. Putu Sutawijaya (born 1971) is interested in music, dance, movement, meditation, contemplation. His paintings are characterised by strong lines and spontaneous brush strokes; his figures are painted or “drawn” with rhythmic motion and minimal colour. Androgynous human figures are represented in motion - dancing, flying, floating - or otherwise completely still in a pose of serene contemplation. Made Sumadiyasa (born 1971) uses a painting technique similar to the one described above for Nyoman Sukari. Sumadiyasa is noted for his own “brand” of abstract expressionism, and has recently included figurative elements such as animals into his paintings.

Made Mahendra Mangku (born 1972) also belongs to the category of artists displaying a preference for the abstract expressionist style. His use of soft shadings of colour convey an atmosphere of meditative unreality. From one shade to another, he slowly transforms a colour into its opposite. Sensitively applied nuances of colour create a feeling of spiritual calm in most of his paintings. Mahendra Mangku confronts and explores colour, using its hues and tones as a means to express the state of his soul. Even though he uses symbols, he does so in a delicate and extremely personal way, expressing his inner self through the magic of colour.

Made Supena (born 1970) is another Balinese artist who is skilled in his use of colour. He generally applies strong, wide bands of unmixed colour to the canvas and then adds abstracted, expressive gestures and imagery to part of the painting. For his abstract landscapes, he finds his source of inspiration in the beauty of nature that he sees all around him in land, sea, sky. He states that he does not try to make nature abstract, he is trying to express what he feels about nature. Ketut Susena (born 1969) creates oil paintings of pure abstract landscapes with striking use of colour. Mountains, lakes, underground streams, forests, cliffs, sea and sky are depicted with large fields of colour and strong brush strokes, creating simultaneously a dreamy feeling and clear awareness of the beauty of nature. Not all is beautiful though in the “paradise” created by Susena – he often paints the deforested hills and fields where illegal logging has occurred. Hailing from West Bali, he is acutely aware of the potential dangers to the environment. He optimistically hopes that there will new planting and new growth in the future.

Several of the younger artists included in this exhibition show a preference for the abstract figurative style which has been popular in Jogjakarta since the innovative painting style of Nyoman Masriadi appeared on the scene. Wayan Sudarna Putra (born 1976) studied the neo-traditional Ubud painting technique in Bali before continuing his studies at ISI Yogyakarta. His figurative paintings of the late 1990s and early 2000s were an offshoot inspired by the Masriadi style, but recently he has developed a quieter photo-realist style painted in black and white, often focussing on multiple images of the human torso shown in profile from neck to thigh. Made Aswino Aji (born 1977) also paints in an abstract figurative style with subject matter focusing on the darker side of human psychological states such as depression, paranoia, fear, terror and trauma. His daring use of colour results in his paintings being particularly attractive. Made Suarimbawa Dalbo (born 1977) created a series of paintings on the subject of caste in Bali for his graduation exhibition at ISI Yogyakarta. His paintings may appear to be more abstract than figurative, but there is generally a human form or at least part of a distorted human form to be seen in his work. His colours tend to be earthy and warm, with striking applications of red, black, blue, yellow and white.

Wayan Danu (born 1972) has created his own signature style which challenges artists, art teachers and art lovers in their notions of “what is a painting?” His lecturers at ISI Yogyakarta were baffled as to whether his paintings could be classified as “paintings”. Can his paintings be described as semi-installation works? Or, as one (Palembang/ISI-educated) artist asked recently, “How many dimensions are there in Wayan Danu’s paintings - 2 or 3?” (We finally settled on 2.5). Danu’s subject matter is often considered to be “scary”, but in fact his themes are taken from the everyday issues of power, greed, lust, anger, dishonesty, corruption, dissatisfaction with the government – these are issues of the common garden variety in that we all have to deal with these problems on a daily basis. If Danu’s paintings are “scary” then it means that everyday life in the modern world is “scary”. But the presence of these problems does not mean that we should curl up into a ball, hide in a corner or avoid facing these issues. After all, none of us are lucky enough to be living in paradise.

Michelle Chin is a writer, translator and curator. email:

[published in exhibition catalogue Bali Temptation, exhibition held at Galeri Langgeng, Magelang, June 2004