Indonesian image of Muhammad riding a mythological beast

The arts of Indonesia are many, especially Indonesian paintings which are unique works of art. The intricate and expressive Balinese paintings are quite famous and often express natural scenes and themes from the traditional dances.A long-standing tradition of sculpture can also be seen in the art and culture of Indonesia, some dating back to the Bronze and Iron Ages. Examples of sculpture illustrating the story of the life of Buddha can be seen in the temples of the 8th and the 10th century. Indonesia’s art and culture is also famous for their unique batik, ikat and songket cloth which is even popular today. [Source: Embassy of Indonesia]

Unlike some countries art forms in Indonesia are not only based on folklore, as many were developed in the courts of former kingdoms such as in Bali, where they are part of religious ceremonies. The famous dance dramas of Java and Bali are derived from Hindu mythology and often feature fragments from the Ramayana and Mahabharata Hindu epics.

Batik is also being produced in some other areas as in Bali where local designs are incorporated. Other provinces produce hand-woven cloths of gold and silver threads, silks or cottons with intricate designs. Painting are numerous all over the country, both traditional and contemporary, woodcarvings for ornamentation and furniture, silverwork and engraving from Yogyakarta and Sumatra, filgree from South Sulawesi and Bali with different styles of clay, sandstone and wood sculptures. These are but a few of the handicrafts found in Indonesia. [Source: Embassy of Indonesia]

Traditional Javanese and Balinese crafts include silver work, batik, hand weaving, woodcarving and puppet making. These forms are the most well known and have been heavily influenced by Hindu-Buddhist traditions, particularly the “Ramayana” and “Mahabharata”stories. Crafts produced in the outer island areas, such as Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi,Nusa Tengarra, highlight weaving, carving and have strong animist influences.

Islam has had a strong influence on the arts. In its most traditional forms it excludes images of humans and animals and instead highlights Islamic-style geometric decorations and Arabic calligraphy. But at the same time the tourism industry has also had a great impact on the arts and crafts industry and tourists like images of humans and animals. Many crafts are no longer made for their intended spiritual, functional or artistic purposes but are simple made to sell to tourists. But rather than being a curse many see this is a blessing, as it helps to keep the crafts alive and provide income for crafts makers.

See Bali

Books: “Art in Indonesia: Continuities of Change” by Clare Holt; “Crafts of Indonesia” by Anne Richter; “History of Indian and Indonesian Art” by Coomaraswamy, Ananda Kentish (New York: Dover, 1985); Film and Video: Art of Indonesia: Tales from the Shadow World, 1990, produced by The Metropolitan Museum of Art Office of Film & TV and the National Gallery of Art explores the ancient treasures of Indonesia and visits Borobudur, the ruins of a Buddhist temple from the ninth century. One of the most popular organizations in Jakarta for those who are interested in learning more about Indonesian culture is the Indonesian Heritage Society. Amateurs become experts through research using their extensive library and participation in study groups. Study groups are formed dependent on the interest of the members and in recent years have included: textiles, ceramics, wayang, batik and others. While at the Museum Nasional in Jakarta, pick up a copy of the National Museum Guidebook, published by the Indonesian Heritage Society for an excellent introduction to the collection. [Source: ]

Diversity of Indonesian Arts and Crafts

Arts and crafts in Indonesia come in a mind-boggling variety. Each region and each ethnic groups has its own distinct styles. Lombok is famous for its baskets. The Dayaks make lovely jewelry with cowry shells. Villages in Java produce pottery similar to the ceramicc created by the Majapahit kingdom. Aceh is famous for its gold jewelry. Java is known for its silverwork.

The diversity evident in Indonesia's 300 plus ethnic groups. Just as every ethnic group throughout the archipelago has its own language/dialect, cuisine, traditional dress and traditional homes and they have also developed their own textiles, ornaments, carvings and items for daily use and special celebrations. The rich cultural heritage of art and handicrafts is one of Indonesia's true national riches. Certain provinces take on character all their own through the art forms you association with them ... Javanese batik, Balinese carvings, Kalimantan baby bak, Malukan pearls, Bugis silk sarong, Lombok pottery, Dayak blow guns, Sumba ikat and more. [Source: ]

Carving in stone and wood are particularly rich. Stone sculptures of the elaborate Hindu variety in Java or the ornate sarcophagi of Sumatra are archaeological remains of value, but only in Bali is elaborate stone carving still done (apart from that which may decorate some upscale Jakarta homes or public buildings). Wood carving is more common. The cottage carving industry of Bali finds a wide domestic and international market for its statues of people, deities, and animals, many of which are finely artistic, some hackneyed. Perhaps the most common carving is in the urban furniture industry, mainly in Java, where ornately carved sofas and chairs are very popular. Traditional puppet or animal carvings of the mountain Batak of Sumatra or the upriver Dayak of Kalimantan are now mainly for tourists, though they once showed rich artistry (now largely seen in museums). The Toraja homes are still elaborately carved, and small examples of these carvings are sold to tourists. Toraja carve decorations on large bamboo tubes used for carrying palm wine or rice, and people in eastern Indonesia decorate small bamboo tubes that carry lime used in betel chewing. Among contemporary urban artists, painting on canvas or making batik is much more common than making sculpture. [Source:]

Wayang and Art in Indonesia

Javanese and Balinese shadow puppet theater shows known as ‘wayang kulit’ have given birth to visual art forms and crafts—namely puppet making. “Wayang” is the Indonesia word for puppet. The art form that has been around for at least 1,000 years. Wayang shows are major social occasions. They have traditionally been featured at weddings, circumcision parties and festivals. While these carefully handcrafted puppets vary in size, shape and style, two principal types prevail: the three-dimensional wooden puppet (wayang klitik or golèk) and the flat leather shadow puppet (wayang kulit) projected in front of a screen lit from behind. Both types are characterized by costumes, facial features and articulated body parts.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Wayang is a generic term, which has several meanings. It means a “puppet”; it can refer to a shadow and it also refers to a performance. Generally, the shadow play, wayang kulit, is seen as the origin of the whole “wayang family”. It includes several theatrical genres from the storyteller’s scroll performances, wayang beber, to the three-dimensional wooden rod puppet theatre, wayang golek, and finally to the court dance drama wayang wong, in which living actors take the place of the wayang puppets. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“All these theatre forms have much in common. Their principles of dramatic action, stylisation of movement, characterisation, costuming, basic role types etc. clearly stem from the same tradition and conventions. The earliest record confirming the existence of shadow theatre in Java dates back to 907. The present-day Balinese puppets represent an archaic style, and bear a clear resemblance to the East Javanese wayang style reliefs. The Javanese puppets are, in turn, believed to have evolved into their extremely elongated and almost non-figurative style during the period of Muslim rule, which put an end to the East Javanese period by the end of the 15th century. It is generally believed that the extreme stylisation of Javanese puppets reflects Islam’s ban on making a human figure. **

“Like the shadow puppets, especially those from Bali, the figures in the narrative panels of the East Javanese temples also follow the conventions of the wayang tradition. The torso is shown frontally, whereas the head, legs and feet are depicted in profile. The thin arms and small hands hang down stiffly alongside the torso if they are not lifted and shown in any of the wayang theatre’s limited mudra-like gestures. **

“The whole treatment of the reliefs is flat, while the large, decorative headdresses of the figures, the Chinese-style cloud motifs and the stylised elements of the landscape often fill the backgrounds. Besides the stylisation of the human figures, the dwarfish servant clowns, the punakawan, and the use of the tree-of-life motif as a dividing agent between the scenes also seem to connect the reliefs with the wayang kulit shadow theatre. **

The “Wayang kulit” (leather puppets) of Java is performed with leather puppets held by the puppeteer, who narates the story of one of the famous episodes of the Hindu epics, the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. It is performed against a white screen while a lantern in the background casts the shadows of the characters on the screen, visible from the other side where the spectators are seated. [Source: Embassy of Indonesia]

The “Wayang Golek” (wooden puppets) of West Java is based on the same concept. The crafts of Indonesia vary in both medium and art form. As a whole the people are artistic by nature and express themselves on canvas, wood, metals, clay and stone. The batik process of waxing and dyeing originated in Java centuries ago and classic designs have been modified with modern trends in both pattern and technology. There are several centres of Batik in Java, the major ones being Yogyakarta, Surakarta, Pekalongan and Cirebon.

A great variety of musical instruments have developed along with the other arts forms. Among these are Angklung from West Java, Gamelan from Yogyakarta or Bali, flutes and gongs from West Java.

History of Indonesia Art and Crafts

A long-standing tradition of sculpture can also be seen in the art and culture of Indonesia, some dating back to the Bronze and Iron Ages. Examples of sculpture illustrating the story of the life of Buddha can be seen in the temples of the 8th and the 10th century.

Indonesian art forms can include designs traced back to early animistic beliefs, ancestor worship, Hindu or Buddhist influenced motifs brought by Indian traders, Chinese or Islamic symbols and beliefs. Foreign influence on Indonesian art forms was brought about by centuries of exposure to other cultures through trade. Immigrants from China, India, the Arab world and later Europe traveled to the archipelago in search of the unique spices grown in Indonesia. These traders settled and brought with them rich artistic traditions which influenced the development of local art. [Source: ]

Today we can see highly developed art forms wherever these artisans had patrons in centuries past. One of the places where this is perhaps most evident is in Yogyakarta where the Sultan's family has supported batik, silver, wayang and other artisans for generations. With this patronage the art forms flourished, resulting in a rich variety of art forms today. The rich artistic traditions of Bali, where traditionally each person must develop skills in a particular art form - be it dance, music, or visual arts has lead to the creation of a vibrant artistic community. Foreign artists have been drawn to Bali for centuries due to this unique cultural synergy.

Symbolism in Indonesia Art and Crafts

Indonesian art forms are rich in symbolism. The mythical naga or dragon; the mamuli pendant - symbol of fertility from Sumba, the tree of life, the mythological beast Garuda (also a national symbol found on the Panca SilaGaruda Carvingsymbol), all have special meanings in Indonesian traditions, myths and beliefs. Exploring the origins of these designs and what they mean is fascinating. [Source: +++]

The war between good and evil, ancient stories of love and warfare, nature and the heavens - all have special meanings to Indonesians throughout the archipelago. Gods, demons and knights abound in Balinese carvings and in other areas where Hindu influence predominated at some point in history. Plants, animals (mythological and real) and geometric forms are also widely used and represent specific meanings in particular art forms. +++

Motifs drawn from nature - leaves, flowers, mountains, water, clouds, animals often represent religious or mystical symbols related to early forms of animism, then later to Hinduism. Islamic prohibitions against showing the human figure or other living creatures stagnated the development of many art forms in areas where Islam was strong.

Certain motifs were favored and even restricted to the royal families, especially in batik designs for the Surakarta and Yogyakarta royal families (one of which is called the broken keris). These symbols depicted simple, natural Parang Batik designobjects that were important to the lives of Javanese, such as the leaves of the aren palm or the fruit from the kapok tree. Traditional colors of navy blue, cream, brown and black used in batik have given way to a myriad of colors utilizing modern imported dyes. +++

Crafts as Works of Art in Indonesia

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York contains a Ceremonial Vessel in the Shape of an Ax Head from Indonesia from the Bronze and Iron Age, a dated to 500 B.C.– A.D. 300. Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts wrote on the museum’s website: “The function of this hollow object cast in bronze is unknown. Although it is more than three feet tall, it is in the shape of a small utilitarian ax. The surface, now rough and greenish brown from long burial, probably was once a bright metal. The meaning of the decoration is also unclear. Two vertical columns of raised horn shapes like those of a water buffalo, each surrounded by delicate oval lines, symmetrically flank a center column of diamond shapes containing a four-pointed star design. These patterns not only decorate the vessel but must also have expressed ideas in a symbolic language that was understood by the people of the time. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Bronze Age cultures flourished throughout Southeast Asia, and bronze utilitarian and ceremonial objects in distinct but related styles were produced in Thailand and Vietnam as well as in Indonesia. Where this vessel was made, how it was used, and for whom it was made is unclear, as little is known about the preliterate peoples of Indonesia. Future archaeological explorations may reveal the context and meaning of such impressive objects. Bronze has always been a very valuable metal and this vessel was cast hollow in the lost-wax process, a difficult technical feat. These con- siderations suggest the ax may not have been made on the small island of Sulawesi where it was found. Rather, it may have been created elsewhere for a local Sulawesi chief as a prestige object for ceremonial use.

The Met also contains a Bangle with Male Head from Java: On thos piece Kossak and Eatts wrote: “Java is one of the few places in South or Southeast Asia where a great deal of ancient gold has been found. This bangle, or bracelet, is a stunning example. The exquisitely cast and richly chased and engraved gold is typical of Javanese workmanship. At the center is a human face in high relief set on top of two large sprays of stylized leaves. The face has a live- ly and intense expression and wears a diadem. The earlobes are distended and have large openings caused by wearing the heavy (and costly) ear ornaments favored by royalty in both South and Southeast Asia and often depicted on images of deities. The band consists of overlapping lotus petals of decreasing size, augmented next to the central medallion with additional small leaves and added chasing and engraving. The goldsmith cast the major forms in one pour of liquid gold using the lost-wax method. Then he sculpted the many fine details by using fine chisels and sharply pointed incising tools.[Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Paintings and Calligraphy in Indonesia

Painting is widespread in Indonesia as an accompaniment to other art forms. For example, woodcarving, masks and pottery are often painted, as are religious items, such as calendars or religious designs painted. Temple painting and other styles of painting exists on Java, but after the conversion to Islam, Bali became the center for painting in Indonesia. Until the arrival of large numbers of Europeans in the 20th century most Balinese were wall paintings or decorative hangings for temples and palaces. [Source: ]

Painting as an art form was really developed in the 19th and 20th century and includes batik paintings, the highly stylized paintings of Bali which depict village and traditional life as well as modern oils and acrylics. Famous Indonesian painters such as Raden Saleh, command high prices on the international market and at auctions in Singapore and Jakarta.

While non-Islamic art forms abound due to the rich Buddhist/Hindu traditions dating back for centuries, Islamic calligraphy has developed in various art forms as well. These include embroidery, wood carvings, ceramics, paintings, and the beautiful gold embroidered Tapis cloth of Lampung.

Among contemporary urban artists, painting on canvas or making batik is much more common than making sculpture. Affandi, a painter, is one of Indonesia’s most highly regarded artists of his time.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.