Traditionally individual villages supported specific crafts and art forms. For example Ubud was a village of painters while Mas was a village of carvers. Painting is widespread in Bali 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 painting were wall paintings or decorative hangings for temples and palaces.

Painting is an example of an art form that has been developed primarily for the tourist industry. Traditionally, the most common style of paintings were scroll paintings and cloth painting used as wall hangings in temples. Most works dealt with Hindu myths and were executed in a flat, two-dimensional style like that found on shadow puppets. But now many painting are landscapes, abstracts or other Western styles. An individual painting on canvas that is an art form in itself is a modern western concept.

Traditional Balinese paintings were narrative scenes that told stories from Hindu literature and mythology. The characters were often depicted in elaborate costumes that made them recognizable for who they were. Demons with fangs and bulging eyes were prominently featured. The traditional wayang narratives were moral tales or told of the exploits of the gods. The whole concept of the art was to tell a story not to be art.

Balinese painting was turned around in the 1930s by western artists such as Walter Spies and Rudolf Bonnet who came to live and work on Bali. They depicted scenes from everyday life rather than religious narratives. Market scenes replaced the cartoon-like narratives of the Hindu epics like Ramayana. Further transformations occurred with the naive “young artist” style that developed in the 1950s. Balinese painting continues to evolve with many noted modern artists producing innovative work.

Painting and Walter Spies

Most of the art that you see today has been developed for tourists. The process began when Walter Spies, a Moscow-born German artist and international socialite, moved to Bali in 1927 and opened an artist colony in Ubud Jamie James wrote in Atlantic magazine that Balinese painting as we known it was virtually invented Spies. "Traditionally, the Balinese considered painting to be among the lowest of the arts," he wrote. "Such painting as was done before Spies came was comparatively unsophisticated, consisting mainly of astrological calenders and scenes from the “wayang”...Spies...introduced Balinese artists to the wider range of colors of Western painting, and the possibility of affects with ready-made brushes." [Source: Hildred Geertz, Natural History, February 1995]

Spies started an artist colony there in Ubud. Among his guests were Noel Coward, Charlie Chaplin (who was reportedly upset none of the made-up little girls accepted his advances), Buckminister Fuller, Margaret Mead (who got married on her way to Bali), and the Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton who fell madly in love with Spies. Spies it turns out was gay. He was arrested on morality charges in 1938 for having sex with a boy. During the trial the boy's father said, "He is our best friend, and it was an honor for my son to be in his company. If both are in agreement why fuss?" Spies spent about a year in jail. In 1942, in the World War II, he was arrested by Dutch authorities because he was German. He was placed with other prisoners on Ceylon-bound boat that was shot by a Japanese torpedo. He and most of the people on the boat drowned.

Spies and Dutch artist Rudolf Bonnet also "introduced Western techniques like perspective and encouraged their students to venture beyond the traditional mythological subjects and paint scenes from everyday life” and create art for arts sake. The result was east tropical landscapes of rice paddies and volcanoes, tropical forests, Hindu festivals, stylized dances and crowds village. Foreigners loved the work and Margaret Mead and her husband Gregory Bateson wrote a book about it.

Describing a painting that came from this period, Hildred Geertz wrote in Natural History, "The paintings of the 1930s have agile figures moving about in a naturalistic settings...Most of these drawings are highly detailed and have repeated, rhythmic patterns of levels and human forms spread over the entire paper. This style mirrors the strong patterning in Balinese textiles and temple wall carvings. Surrounded by tormented souls, the mythic Hindu hero Bima battles the demon guardian of Hell for permission to free his parents's spirits. His mother and father suffer in a caldron of boiling oil. The father's crime, as a hunter, was to have killed a Brahman priest disguised as a deer."

In the 1960s, a Dutch painter named Arie Smit, who had lived in Bali for several years, came across some boys making Matisse-like figure in the sand. Struck by their talent and skill, he encouraged them to paint and the result became known as the Young Artists movement. Smit is credited with injecting new life into the Spies style which had devolved into simply copying. Paintings from the Young Artists movement are mostly genre scenes know for their use of flat colors, and broad stylistic and often humorous figures.

Keep Balinese Art Alive Today

Trisha Sertori wrote in the Jakarta Post, “Pak Moening has been curator of Ubud, Bali’s fine art museum Puri Lukisan’s for the past 60 years and he was speaking of the threat to traditional Balinese art forms, if these are reduced to the commercial rather than the devotional. Now well into his seventh decade, Moening says he has witnessed many fine artists turn from the true path of art making to become “factories” for handicrafts. There is a light now shining that may well support Bali’s fine artists; Sarasvati Art Management is currently promoting Bali’s most talented emerging artists to the nation, and also educating people on what constitutes fine art within traditional Balinese painting styles. [Source: Trisha Sertori, Jakarta Post, December 22, 2011 ]

“The styles such as the extraordinarily detailed works of Keliki painters who use brushes as “fine as two human hairs,” for their line work, according to Sarasvati head, Syenny Setiawan. She is the wife of well-known traditional Balinese art collector, Lin Che Wei, who founded Sarasvati in 2010 with the goal of “protecting and sustaining traditional Balinese art, as well as the artists behind them,” according to the foundation’s mission. As a financial whiz, Syenny’s husband, Che Wei, has taken a pragmatic approach to his stable of artists’ promotion and support and the education of the public on the fine art of Bali, planting what he terms “hidden jewels”, in exhibitions so viewers are not influenced simply by price tag, but by the qualities within the works. “We purposely put hidden jewels of works, purposely under priced and we are sometimes surprised when collectors cannot spot that hidden jewel — others with a trained eye spot them and know ‘this is the one, so it’s (Sarasvati) about education,” says Che Wei.

“He adds the organization breaks down artworks and artists, “screening out decorative artists”, and focusing on collectible artists to bring them to the point where they become ”investable” artists. “With these collectible artists we say why don’t you value yourself and we lead them forward,” says Che Wei. Sarasvati recognizes the great financial difficulties faced by artists who dedicate their lives and talent to following the true path to fine art, rather than cruising the down hill run of commercialism, which in the short term may offer a much better income for compromised art. “The trick is how to prevent these artists from temptation. Some feel this [working months on an art work] is too much hassle and are tempted by commercialism. Having a financial background, I saw if I wanted to help collectable artists, we needed to address their financial issues,” says Che Wei, who through Sarasvati “adopts pieces and supports artists”, with the long-term goal of bringing them into the bankable ranks of artists such as Affandi, whose works always attract buyers.

“For Bali’s “young artists” who are mostly now in their 40s, the opportunity to have their traditional style works exhibited and supported by Sarasvati is invaluable, not only in financial terms, but in its recognition of their personal sacrifice to their art making. “This is important to promote paintings that are non-commercial art, but real art,” says 43-year-old I Nyoman Sana of Tegalalang who has been painting since he was a child.

“This [group] exhibition is good because Bali artists take a long time to create a painting so collecting enough works for solo exhibition is difficult. If we can exhibit like this [group show], we solve the problem of spending years not exhibiting. Sarasvati is very important because with support like this we can work totally in the art and don’t need to just chase money, but instead make special art, to express ourselves in art,” says Sana.

According to artist I Wayan Warta Yasa, commercialism over quality is not the only issue facing Bali’s art future, he fears people will not take up a brush at all. “Organizations like Sarasvati are important because in Bali so many are leaving painting to work in hotels. For me, I follow art. I am happy and art makes life more active and valuable, meaning if we succeed from art in Bali we may become artists of Indonesia as Bali’s traditional artists. I hope that if people don’t know the paintings they will at least know the artists — if they die they will be remembered.

Ashley Bickerton

Ashley Bickerton is arguably Bali’s most famous artist. Bruce W Carpenter wrote in Indonesia Expat, “When Ashley Bickerton left New York City for Bali in 1997 he was a major star on the international arts scene. His trajectory to the top had begun only a decade before in 1986 following a much acclaimed exhibition at the Sonnebend Gallery that launched his career along with three other up and coming artists – Jeff Koons, Peter Halley and Meyer Vaismen. Art critic Grace Gluek would note their rise in a New York Times article (6/7/87) in which she suggested that new trends could be better described as brands than art movements. Her comment on the content and nomenclature of this new watchamacallit was, “Borrowing from Pop, Minimal and Conceptual art, and heavily involved with social theories, it is variously referred to as Smart Art, Post-Abstract Abstraction, neo-Conceptualism, Simulationism or simply Neo-Geo, short for ‘new geometry’”. Others joined but the core group, dubbed the Fantastic Four, after comic book heroes, still held centre stage. [Source: Bruce W Carpenter, Indonesia Expat, June 8, 2012 /*/]

“After ten years in the spotlight he made a potentially suicidal career move when he left the “Zone” (New York) for Kuta Beach, Bali. There he moved into a modest compound deep in the labyrinth of Legian’s back streets and assumed a new persona, Ash, just another surfer. He kept painting of course, but few if any knew about his secret identity. Anonymity suited him just fine. Besides, being a painter was a common if not default occupation among Bali’s expatriates. The main criteria for the job were Bohemian pretensions, an indolent lifestyle and the ability to talk fast. A lack of money and the absence of talent was not an issue because paint, canvasses and brushes are cheap, and audiences easily impressed. /*/

“Born an Englishman in Barbados he was the son of a scholar who specialized in Pigin and Creole languages. Dragged by his father from one exotic destination after another as he studied the syncopated and abbreviated dialects based on the Queen’s English, he was rootless and nomadic by nature. The closest he ever came to having a real home was Hawaii hanging on Oahu’s North Shore in the 1970s. He learned to surf there but was always in denial about it. “I surf”, he would declare, “but I am not a surfer”, to his bronzed long haired surfer buddies. He would continue the ruse in Southern California while attending the California Institute of Art. /*/

“Ashley Bickerton remains a major artist even if he is still the most famous unknown painter living in Bali. When asked in an interview in Art in America magazine (May 2011) if he was connected with the art scene in Bali or the artists’ colonies of Ubud he replied: “I set up my studio so that when you close the doors it could be a studio anywhere in the world. It could be in Williamsburg or Silverlake. I avoid that washedup-on-the-shores and paint folklorica kind of fantasy. I can’t stand the idea of making art as wispy exotic and escapist kinds of things. It actually took years and years before I faced the elephant in the room—that I was, in fact, living and working in an exotic place.” /*/

“While still leading something of a hermit’s life, Ashley’s anonymity has been shrinking of late. When I first heard from surferhistory-elder, Leonard Lueras, that he was living in Legian I was incredulous. “What the Hell is a world class artist doing in the Bali’s equivalent of Tijuana?” Ashley also became the centre of attention of the more moneyoriented members of Bali’s nouveau riche expatriates in 2008 with the arrival of his old friend the controversial British artist, Damien Hirst. The most expensive living artist, with a large entourage in tow was the major event of the High Season. Everybody knew that Ashley was the man on the inside track. /*/

Ashley Bickerton’s Bali Art

Bruce W Carpenter wrote in Indonesia Expat, “Exuberant and often borderline Surrealistic, most of Ashley’s realistic work can be easily classified as portraits or scenes. While their imagery is complex his are easy to describe superficially – a yellow outrigger full of characters dressed in extraordinary costumes floating atop crystal clear blue tropical waters. As you stare at them, however, deeper ideas and feelings begin churning leading to a labyrinth of conundrums. I was stunned to see one of his most provocative paintings, “Expats”, a super realistic scene of scantily dressed Indonesian girls, wayang shadow puppets and two thoroughly disgusting disheveled age inappropriate western men in Leonard Lueras’ classic book Kuta and Kuta (2005). [Source: Bruce W Carpenter, Indonesia Expat, June 8, 2012 /*/]

“There are those who prefer to see him as a latter day Hogarth making biting- satirical commentaries on our values and society. While Ashley vehemently denies any moral or didactic content his often-impish grin always gives pause for thought. Ironically others have accused him of being sexist and neocolonial for depicting women as objects of lust. It would seem sometimes that art critics and curators have nothing better to do than speculate on all sorts of improbable hidden messages. What is clear is that he is a mature artist who always follows his own intuition. There is also a strong biographical element in his works best seen in his partial alter ego, the blue man, who he created early in his career. In his last incarnation he was a fat lustful hedonist. While many of his work display sheer unadulterated joy, others like his recent series of portraits contain a strong dose of the shadow world. The nearly identical girls with their huge luminous eyes are both innocent and seductive but also ultimately menacing. /*/

His take on the dichotomy is perfectly summed up in his own monologue: “Ernest Hemingway spent inordinate amounts of time prattling on, both in screeds and on bar stools, about the impossibility of reconciling his physical and mental worlds. Such reconciliation is no mean feat in our world of ever intensifying specialization. For the pre-historic hunter-gatherer of course the two worlds were seamless and inextricable. The long-term trajectory of my own work has always been at the mercy of these contradictory forces. Whereas on the one hand there is a periodic need to throw oneself into the bubbling cacophony that is the scream of our species just needing ‘to be’, there is also the periodic recoil, a reflexive demand to place oneself in a bereft mental landscape where the audibility of human voices is reduced to its lowest ‘credible’ level.” /*/

Visiting Ashley Bickerton’s House in Bali

A reporter with reported: “To get to Ashley Bickerton’s home in Bali, you take the congested main road to the southern peninsula of Butik, past the beach area known as Dreamland and on to the massive Pecatu Indah resort, whose entrance is marked by a towering sculpture of Vishnu riding atop the eagle Garuda. You then veer sharp left in front of a steady onslaught of motorcycles overloaded with people and materials and head down the hill toward a comparatively lush, quiet part of the island. Somehow, I miss Bickerton’s compound the first time I drive down the narrow winding road that cuts through chicken farms and secluded villas. On the way back up, the entrance appears so distinct that it could only be Bickerton’s. The thatched-roof gatehouse, with a big number 13 carved from wood on the front, is supported by a pair of tumescent green pillars. Burrowed inside each of these is a bald, yellow-headed, blue-tongued serpent figure—a signature motif cast from the artist’s own head and frequently seen in his garish, satirical paintings from the mid-2000s recording a foreigner’s lecherous life in Bali. [Source:, Jul/Aug 2013 ]

“Bickerton’s residence is much more of a wonderland than any tourist resort on the island, yet its idiosyncratic style also makes it the anti-villa villa. Set into a steep hillside with sweeping views of the ocean are several Balinese-styled buildings, their features exaggerated like the architecture in Dr. Seuss tales. One, made of black river stones with a terra-cotta-tiled roof, contains his studio and fabrication facilities; another is a long, open-aired space with a sloping roof used for entertaining and dining, and is filled with serpentine-branched furniture, old Balinese masks, turtle shells and his own recent paintings—including one of a red motorbike driven by a blue-faced man and overladen with kitschy objects and four rainbow-color-painted Balinese women. Adjacent is a two-story water tower embedded with ornamental ceramic plates. Near the swimming pool, there’s a kitchen and dining area fashioned from an old Javanese house—constructed from once-colorful painted and carved wood, now faded—that he brought back to Bali and rebuilt with a new roof and foundation. The place is, in a word, exuberant.

“Wearing a black T-shirt, little gray cap and long cargo shorts that reveal Pacific-style tattoos, Bickerton declares in his hard-to-place, non-English, but British-ish accent, “Well, I’m Hindu now, I guess.” He was married just the day before—a big congratulations sign, in the local style, fringed by already wilting flowers, rests by the pool. We sit down on the veranda of the old Javanese building as his teenage son walks by with a surfboard under each arm, getting ready, he says, for three o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, when he and his father predict the best swells, kicked up by Antarctic storms, will make landfall on the island’s shores. “We’re planning the whole week around it,” Bickerton says. He then launches into several stories at once. One is on the woes of fabrication in Yogyakarta, and the other about how he has just found out, via Facebook, that he is currently having a solo show in Zurich, which had opened the week prior and, unbeknownst to him, had quoted him in the press release, despite the show being entirely composed of secondary-market work.

“Before concluding any of these tales, he digresses into a discussion of Jeff Koons’ latest exhibition at David Zwirner gallery in New York, the profile in New York magazine in early May that named Koons the “Most Successful American Artist Since Warhol,” and the bitching and rejoinders that old New York friends and colleagues had posted online. There we are, a world away from the art scene where Bickerton made his name in the mid-1980s with his contemporaries at Sonnabend Gallery, as part of the Neo-Geo crowd that included Peter Halley, Meyer Vaisman and Koons. Yet Bickerton is as up-to-date on the vicissitudes and triumphs of the old gang as when he left New York in 1993 to settle on the shores of the Indian Ocean.

Ashley Bickerton’s Studio in Bali

A reporter with reported: “After a tour of the property, we finally get down to the studio, where several projects are in varying states of development. The most immediately striking is an Amazonian, two-meter-tall standing nude woman cast in gray fiberglass and adorned with splotches of paint, a garland of keys, a necklace of utensils and mismatching, huge orange and green eyeballs. She has oversized feet, hands and features, but to Bickerton, she’s “sexy, human and real,” a rebuttal, he believes, to the ubiquitous, undersized figures found in fashion magazines. “Taksu is the Balinese word for when your hair stands up on your neck,” he says, by way of explaining his quasi-prurient feelings about this figure. He created her for his gallery’s booth at an upcoming art fair. Less excited about the nude figure than Bickerton was, his gallerist politely demurred, saying he should save the sculpture for the next solo show. [Source:, Jul/Aug 2013 ]

“Bickerton’s wild aesthetic masks his interest in what he describes as the “interfacing of painting, sculpture and photography all into one.” On the wall is a gray, vertical rectangle of fiberglass, its textured exterior looking like someone has pushed their hands into wet clay. Thick globs of red, yellow and blue paint, straight from the tube, are dotted across the work, and adhered between these mountains of fiberglass and paint are digital photographs of the object’s lunar-like surface. It’s all part of what Bickerton calls “a fast-moving tango between thick paint and images of thick paint.” From a distance it is difficult to distinguish digital representation of the surface from the surface itself, and whether this rectangular thing is an object, image, image-object or object-image, it’s impossible to say.

“At the far end of the studio are a large sofa and seven oversized busts made in clay and adorned with smears of fluorescent paint, necklaces of lemons and old cigarettes. They are grotesque and exoticized. Some have pointy breasts, but it’s not all that clear that they are female. “Are those women?” I inquire. “I don’t know. I don’t care, really. Could be, if they want to be,” Bickerton jokes. He reminds me that transsexuals have long fascinated artists because they are seen as creators of artifice, shape-shifters of beauty. Behind these busts are one silver and one gold picture of one of these figures after it has been photographed, printed and adhered to canvas, with further globs of thick paint applied on top. As far as his hyperexoticized, often lurid subject matter goes, Bickerton says it is a “parody of Gaugin and 20th-century literature,” adding that “there’s a vague autobiographical element to everything I do.”

“Over lunch back up the hill, Bickerton dispenses zippy one-liners and glosses on just about everyone well-known in the art world today: so-and-so is “not your average pothead” and another friend is “the biggest hustler in the art world.” Most of his quips are unprintable, but they tend to be complex compliments, since Bickerton is hardly repulsed by the aesthetic, material or financial excesses of the art world, having both benefited from and, during the late-1980s crash, become a casualty of them. At one point, Anselm Kiefer becomes a subject of contention, particularly his Chairman Mao works shown at White Cube gallery, Hong Kong, in 2012, which Bickerton defends vigorously on technical grounds: “As far as laying paint down, he’s untouchable. On the arias, he hits all the high notes.” Even in his tropical retreat, Bickerton remains in the center of things, far away but not far gone.”

Balinese Woodcarving and Crafts

The Balinese are expert wood carvers. They produce wonderful stylized wooden flowers and plants as well as temple doors, reliefs and statues. Most objects are made for the tourist trade and they include Asmat bis poles ad Kalimantan fertility statues as well as traditional Balinese objects.

Wordworking is very developed on Bali. Some of the Hindu statues are decorated with little skirts made of black-and-white checked material. The symbolize the animist belief in good and evil. The detritus logs and roots commonly found along the river’s edge have a unique artistic potential.

One of Bali’s most famous artists Ida Bagus Tilem produces woodcarvings that sell for thousands of dollars on the international market. His work includes images of Rama and Sita being swallowed up by flames. One critic commented: “His creations are quite exotic to look at, traditional but without academic influence. His works have a frighteningly macabre feel, his animal carvings eerie, his figurative sculptures showing strange and frightening forms, as well as beasts whose features are indistinct”

Balinese jewelry is nearly always constructed by hand and rarely involves traditional casting techniques. Balinese jewellery is very innovative, employing, traditional designs but, more often than not, adapting designs or copying from other jewellery presented by western buyers. Lombok pottery is very fashionable and has an earthy primitive look with subtle colourings. Balinese ceramics show a stronger western influence and are more inclined to use glazing.

1 Nyoman Tjokot

1 Nyoman Tjokot, born around 1886 in Jati village, Tegallalang, some 15 kilometres from Ubud, Gianyar, is regarded as one of the great innovators of Balinese art and woodcarving. Using all his sensual powers he was able to find a story in most any piece of wood, whatever shape or size. He could carve his fantasy using chisel and mallet, creating characters spontaneously until he finished up with a three-dimensional invention that even he could not have predicted. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Tjokot was not born into a family of artists. Neither of his grandfathers, I Wayan Tambun and I Made Punduh, were sculptors. His artistic inclination came naturally and spontaneously without parental influence or even encouragement from schoolteachers. Actually it seems that nobody was responsible for teaching him the amazing skills he possessed, and it is safe to say that he was entirely self-taught. Without any kind of formal education or training, Tjokot, son of I Gentar and Ni I (inut, had an amazing grasp of technique, enabling him to take any shape of wood and carve it in such a way as its proportions were represented perfectly in the finished work, which would always be a fine balance between form and composition. With each stroke of his mallet, a dialogue took place between himself and his work, deepening the character and expression of the work as it progressed.

In the 1930s, the two foreign painters in Ubud, Waiter Spies and Rudolf Bonnet, straight away saw the strength of Tjokot’s work. They were extremely supportive and helped Tjokot to convince the doubting Thomas in the rather backward villages, that this was a genius at work. The coarse, unrefined, primitive pieces he made were sold in reasonable numbers, although not in quantities to match sales of works by more orthodox craftsmen. Tjokot’s works were always stashed in a dark corner, out of sight, sometimes getting no further than the warehouse.

Something of a hill-billy, Tjokot was down to earth and lived quite modestly. He was a small man compared even to most Balinese. When he was twenty he married a girl from the same village, Ni Gonta, to whom he remained attached until death, and who gave him seven children. His fifth, I Wayan Ditu is no longer with us, and neither is his second, a daughter, Ni Made Santer. The other five have made it their lot to continue producing sculpture in the style of their father. Although eccentric in his work, in daily village life Tjokot was an amenable soul. He was a priest, generally officiating at weddings and birth ceremonies, and he was also a healer. He spent his leisure time pursuing the traditional pastime of cock fighting, although Dini rejects accusations that his father was cock-fight-crazy: “When father was working he would forget everything, often falling asleep besides his work. It’s therefore wrong to say he was always cock-fighting.

Tjokot was a notorious workaholic. This we know from the writings of GM Sudarta who wrote in 1974. “I met him some months before he died in Jati village. In order to get to the village then, one had to travel 15km from Ubud on foot, over hills and dales. He had been ill for some time but was determined to live out his remaining days in Jati. In fact it was his last wish to die in his place of birth embraced by his family. In a wobbly old bamboo hut with a low concaved roof 1 met him as he was working in a stooped position, his knees against his chest.”

Right up to his dying moments he continued to work on small carvings, even though his legs were weak and his eyesight fading. As old age over came him, he still managed to wield hammer and chisel.

Tjokot died at 83 years of age on the 1st of October 1971 as a result of tuberculosis having wrecked his lungs. He left little in the way of material wealth for his children and grandchildren, except a few prized sculptures which remain in their possession to this day. But despite being poor, he left behind quite a big name, not only for his family, but for Indonesia as a whole. He also passed on a style which became known as Tjokotism and which later enabled his progeny to improve their standard of living by leaps and bounds.

Art-Making Process of 1 Nyoman Tjokot

The style developed by Tjokot and introduced earlier in this writing, can be described as primitive, coarse, spontaneous, and full of realism and strong personal expression. All of his works were achieved with the help of chalk and coconut oil, and although this is done to prevent the wood from warping and splitting, it allowed Tjokot to be freer with ornament and to achieve extremely subtle detail. This is similar to the makers of Kris daggers, who mix metals in such a way as to achieve its distinctive colour and character. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Tjokotism didn’t come from nowhere, and it has to be said that Tjokot’s work was influenced by the Ubud style, which was refined and sweet. Since there were so many sculptors concentrated in the Ubud area, Tjokot watched them and began to imitate their style. However, as soon as he had mastered technique he quickly developed an idiosyncratic approach that was unprecedented. The primitive aspect of his work concurs with his habit of meditating at Taro temple some five kilometers from his village where there are many primitive carvings and stone relief. On his way to and from the temple he would come across pieces of wood suitable for his craft and take them home to be worked on. He also drew much inspiration from lontar leaf manuscripts, which he was also highly adapt at reading and interpreting in his works. The day when he realized he was an artist was also the moment he felt that he had finally discovered Bali in his work.

His creative process rarely involved advance planning. He simply picked up his tools and began to chisel away, his imagination being led by the form of the particular piece of wood he was working on, controlled at the same time by his keen aesthetic judgment. In the thirties the painter Gusti Nyornan Lernpad would often joke with Tjokot as he walked past Lempad’s house in Ubud carrying his carvings. “Hey Tjokot. Where are you taking that firewood?” Tjokot would smile and walk on. Yet this was not the only instance of mockery. Many people considered him to be a little crazy because of the way his work was at variance with the prevailing artistic clime in Ubud at the time: refined, technically accurate and aesthetically beautiful. The stubborn Tjokot didn’t think of his creations as firewood of course. On the contrary, he felt that he was breaking new and important ground, and the day would come when Leinpad would accept and value, even admire Tjokot’s steadfastness in his art.

Tjokot was not particularly interested in passing his style on to his children. “Father only encouraged us to make beautiful and interesting carvings, not necessarily in his style. He said this would help us to earn more rapid cash that we would need for public and religious holidays”, said Made Dini, one of Tjokot’s children with whom the author spoke and the owner of an art shop in Teges. Peliatan boasting the sign “Tjokot’s Son”. Dini added: “However because we often saw our father at work, we inevitably started to copy his style, even if we each branched off in slightly different directions; brothers, sisters, grandchildren and all.”

Art of 1 Nyoman Tjokot

As ‘primitive’ creations, his works are highly exotic, traditional, and without any kind of academic reference. His works have a frighteningly macabre feel, his animal carvings eerie, his figurative sculptures showing strange and frightening forms, as well as beasts whose features are indistinct. This primitive style has become known as ‘Tjokotism’. The characteristic Tjokot’s masterpiece is usually small, not any bigger than 1 meters height, making from very dry wood, usually from “pinis” wood, “panggal buaya” wood, “gintungan” or red wood. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Many of his works are now in the permanent collection of the puri Lukisan Ubud., such as Leak and his Minion, Mother and Child, Grasshopper, Tiger and her Cubs, owl Mother Canyinga Lantern with her Child, Sita Kidnapped by Rahwana, Garuda Eating Snake, Begawan on a Devil’s Back and the narrative Bubuk Sah goes to heaven on the shoulders of a tiger while his brother Gagak Aking grasps the tiger’s tail’ (from the folk tale Gagak Aking). And in the Mabudhara Mandhara Giri Bhuwana building of the Arts Centre in Denpasar can be seen his creation Paksi (bird).

After Indonesian independence in 1949 Tjokot’s vanguard style became popular. Art shops started to stock his works, in particular Nuratni Art Shop which was working in conjunction with “Topic Traders”, who introduced Tjokot to the outside world. Collectors from Europe and America rushed to buy his work. In the forties Tjokot had become an acknowledged maestro, and from that time on visitors to Bali would go out of their way to obtain examples of his work. Pieces which had been placed out of sight were brought out of hiding and dusted down ready to be placed in full view for maximal visual enjoyment. Local collectors exhibited a kind of snobbery with respect to owning a Tjokot, and went out of their way to show that they had at least one example in their collections.

So many of his works were sold that when he finally passed away there were very few remaining, so that when an exhibition was held in Jakarta at the Museum of Fine Art as part of the 450th anniversary of the city, only eight pieces were brought together, to be shown alongside the work of Gusti Nyoman Lempad and Ida Bagus Nyana. They were : Gajah Mina (1966), Sato Ngempu (1968) and Panca Resi (1968), with the remainder of the exhibition provided by Tjokotists (his children) Sawat, Lantas, Nongos, Dim, and two grandchildren I Made Kanten and 1 Made Gelis.

Several exhibitions brought heaps of praise on Tjokot. In the above mentioned exhibition, the organiser, Kusnadi, wrote: “The late I Nyoman Tjokot found a magical expressiveness that was basically ancient Balinese in essence, an aesthetic that was introduced and maintained in his works without any conscious thought of preserving culture, a culture whose art often features portrayals of magical beasts and devils.” Prior to this an exhibition of his work along with that of mask maker Ida Bagus Geledog, was held at the Queensland Industries Fair in Australia, at which time Nongos acted as deputy, running a workshop to introduce Tjokotism to the out side world. Then there was the 1970 Expo in Kyoto, Japan, where Tjokot’s work added zest to Indonesia’s stand, and his work was also included in a tour of America in 1993.

In 1969 he was awarded the Wijaya Kusuma prize by the Indonesian government which included the sum of Rp 100,000 – at that time the biggest award ever made to an artist in Indonesia. A fine achievement after so many years of poverty and suffering for his art, When he received the award on the 17th of August 1969, the following announcement was made: “This award is being presented to I Nyoman Tjokot as a mark of respect from the Indonesian Department of Education and Culture, in recognition of work done in the name of Indonesia by this sculptor who has maintained his integrity amidst the rapid developments taking place in the Balinese arts.

Balinese Textiles

Endek is a Balinese method of weaving with dyed threads. “Prada” is the application of gold leaf or gold and silver thread to traditional Balinese clothes. Songket is most commonly found in West Sumatra, but can be seen in parts of Kalimantan and Bali. Ikat sarongs and Batik shirts are also widely available.

Traditional Balinese textiles are renowned worldwide. While admired by many for their beauty and sheer artistry, textiles also play an important part in the daily life and ceremonies of the Balinese. Textiles in Bali don’t just provide clothed, they also indicate the status and well being of the wearer. Women from royal families compete with each other to make the most beautiful creations using the most sumptuous materials. Moreover, man textiles were believed to hold magical powers, which protected the wearer against malevolent influences. They also serve as go-betweens to the supernatural world in religious rituals such as cremations, when hundred of meters of expensive clothe were turned into ashes to accompany the soul of the dead of in its passage to the other world. The guardians of the secret knowledge of textiles and like the ingredients for certain dyes and a rich compendium of sacred motifs – have always been the women of Bali. In fact, one of the most important duties of a mother is to continue the tradition by handing down her knowledge to her daughter. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Endek is a tie-dyed woven textile popular with most Balinese. Wooden hand-operated looms are used in the process of the weft-ikat method. This is where sections of the cloth are tied and then wrapped before immersing them into tubs of dye. The basic designs are irregular and soft wavy patterns. Also created are diamond designs and a zigzagging pattern. Endek is a versatile cloth for the Balinese because it can be worn for both daily use and ceremonial purposes.

Decorating with silver or gold thread, Kain Prada is a lustrous fabric woven of cotton or silk. This cloth is usually applied for table cloth or curtain, or traditional banner in a ceremony or a social gathering. Kain Prada has various colors and motifs. One with lotus blossoms and swastikas as border decorations is the most common. Prada cloth is identified by gold design on batik cloth. Originally the cloth was made with gold but now it is painted using imitation gold coloring, usually on polyester, for use in making fans and hotel decorations. Most Balinese dance costumes are also made of prada.

The geringsing is considered sacred throughout Bali and has always been very rare and expensive. Many stories have been told about it – human blood is said to needed in order to acquire its deep rich color. Older items sometimes come up for sale but are inevitably damaged. If you want to buy a geringsing, Tenganan is the worst place to start, as the villagers here would never sell you their sacred cloth. What is available is usually brought from outside to be sold at outrageous prices to unsuspecting tourists. There are a number of places specializing in new ikat cloths. Singaraja is north Bali renowned as home of the best ikat. Gianyar has many ikat factories with hundreds of women still weaving by hand. Sideman, on the way to Besakih Temple, also has a famous factory. If you are looking for a bargain, try Denpasar market.

Another traditional technique now fast-disappearing is pelangi or tie-dye. By trying off sections of cloth to prevent it from coming into contact with the dye, beautiful patterns are created. Silk cloth is usually used.

Balinese Songket and Batik

Songket is a brocaded silk with interweaving patterns of silver and gold thread made using a technique by which gold or silver threads are woven into the cloth or ikat. It usually comes in 2-meter lengths for use as sarongs or long scarves by Balinese women in ceremonies. Antique cloths can also be found, but are rarely in good condition. New songket of various quality are still woven in Klungkung. Quality is, of course, reflected in the price. If the item is cheap, this mean the songket is loosely woven. Remember that the best quality can cost over 3.000.000 Rupiah. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Songket is classified as the ceremonial luxurious dress of all Balinese. Often the price of a Songket is over one millions rupiah (US$110). Songket is usually worn in a wedding party. This cloth is tapestry in appearance and has various motifs including wayang Balinese traditional puppet figures, birds, butterflies, flowers and leaves. The process of weaving is done on back-strap looms. Unfortunately, Songket can neither be machine-washed nor detergent added, for its sensitive pattern and color. Therefore, when one wears this cloth he must very careful. Otherwise, one may rent this traditional cloth in some photo studios or beauty salon around Kuta, Nusa Dua, or Ubud, especially for those wishing to at least have a picture in traditional luxurious Balinese dress. Like Endek, Songket is very easy to be found in many traditional markets in Bali.

Batik, the national cloth of Indonesia, has been both an art and craft for centuries, worn for some official events as well as traditional gatherings. There are two methods in producing Batik, Tulis and Cap. Batik Tulis is a traditional method manually done by using melted wax (Balinese malam). The melted wax is painted on a piece of a cotton in several motifs by using traditional canting needle, a wooden handled tool with a metal cup and a tiny spout, out of which the wax seeps. The inventions of the cooper block or cap which is developed in the twentieth century make a big revolution in the batik productions. It became possible to make high quality designs and intricate patterns much faster than one could possibly do by hand painting. This method of using copper block to applied melted wax patterns is called Batik Cap.

Batik has been developed not only as traditional attire but also high quality modern paraphernalia. The main batik manufacturing in Bali is in the District of Gianyar where many factories can be found and visited. You also can find modern batik clothing in many boutiques around Denpasar or Kuta. Many people who come to Bali ask for “Balinese batik”. But in fact batik was never really made in Bali until recently, and even today most batik come from Java. Balinese batik is usually found on colorful bedspreads and sarongs with designs of anything from Bart Simpson to the Sun and Moon. If you are looking for traditional batik sarongs you should got to the market in Denpasar. You will need to check them carefully as there are many cheap print imitations.

Balinese Ikat and Gringsing

The first kind is “warp ikat”, usually woven in silk. Found in many parts of Bali, it is usually used to make saput, outer sarongs, or the scarves worn on ceremonial occasions. The Indian patola textiles have influenced the design and motifs, which the Balinese have redesigned with more abstract patterns, creating new variations. Certainly the most famous ikat in Bali is the geringsing, only woven in a tiny village of Bali Aga called Tenganan. Here the ikat pattern is created in both the warp and welt threads. This process, known as “double ikat”, is difficult, requiring both expertise and patience to align the two patterns. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Gringsing is one of the rarest weaving techniques practiced, and you particularly will only find this textile in the traditional village of Tenganan, East Bali. Gringsing is also known as the ‘flame cloth’ and in this elaborate dyeing process both the warp and weft threads are carefully bound before dyeing. This creates numerous patterns that once finished they seemingly fit together perfectly and harmoniously.

Tenganan is the only place in Bali where the double-ikat process is practiced. There are only a handful of women left in Tenganan who know this practice of weaving, a threat to the next generation. A piece of Gringsing takes up to three days to weave but the finished product is superb. When you visit the village you are welcome to have a look at this weaving process or buy this traditional cloth in a fair price. Like a songket, this cloth is very sensitive to detergent or washing machine so one must hand-wash it very carefully.

Balinese Architecture

Traditional Balinese Architecture is a combination of a balance relation between Bhuwana Agung (universe, the bigger world,) and Bhuwana Alit (human, the smaller miniature). This traditional architecture is a mix influence of the Hindu culture, Chinese Buddhist, and Megalithic culture. In several parts of Bali European style can also be found. These days traditional architecture is combined with the more modern design. [Source: Bali A Traveler’s Companion and Bali Tourism Information Book 2008]

Typical Balinese decorations include door guards (usually representations of The Mahabartha hero Arjuna) beside gateways, the monstrous face of Kala above the entrance with her hands ready to catch evil spirits; and images of the witch Rangda in front of temples dedicated to the dead.

Tenganan and Trunyan are two traditional villages, each with its own unique architecture. Both villages are of old Balinese origin, Bali Aga, which preceded the migration of Javanese royals from the Majapahit Empire to Bali in the 15th century. The Bali Aga do not follow modern Balinese Hinduism and have moved to their inner enclosures to stay away from the ‘foreign’ Javanese influences. Unlike the common nine-building concept of Balinese house architecture, traditional houses in Tenganan and Trunyan consist of two main buildings only: 1) a large building which consists of some bed rooms, kitchen, terrace and 2) a family temple. All the bedrooms, kitchen, terrace are built in on a piece, large building. The village temple is built from big stones with relatively few relief carvings.

Balinese Buildings

The basic building in Bali is the “bale”, an open air temple with a steeply-pitched palm-thatch roof. A typical family compound consists of a number of bales, each with a particular function. The “bale banjar” is a large pavilion used for meetings or gatherings. Restaurants at hotels are often made as a bale.

“Meru” is the name is the name given to tiered-roof shrines, They have traditionally been made with the black thatch of sugar palms, which is used only for making temples. Major temples usually include multi-floored pagodas called “merus”. They are named after Mt. Meru, the Hindu god Shiva’s mountain paradise. The number of roofs if almost always an odd number with ones having 11 roofs being the holiest, The inner courtyard may also contain a throne of local god or less important gods. You do no see images of major Hindu gods like you do in Hindu temples in India.

Balinese homes have traditionally been simple structures that were not elaborately decorated while temples were often built with wood carvings and sculpture being the primary means of decoration. Sculpture, religion and architecture have traditionally gone hand and hand. A gate or an entrance way has traditionally served as a vehicle to make elaborate sculptures or carvings that generally have religious significance. Often sculpture and carving and added on to a structure long after it has been built as the money for such things become available.

See Homes, Temples.

Balinese House Architecture

An old Hindu’s manuscript called Lontar Asta Kosala Kosali is the chief guide to build a proper Balinese house. There are also other manuscripts, such as Lontar Asta Bumi (containing size of land and location a good house), Lontar Asta Dewa & Lontar Wisma Karma (containing the name, shape, and function of each a building), and Lontar Dewa Tattwa (containing clearance ceremony before a house is built). In many aspects of life, those guidance books have been developed depending on the surrounding, local topography. [Source: Bali A Traveler’s Companion and Bali Tourism Information Book 2008]

Based on the philosophy, a traditional Balinese house has some strength aspects. The strength points that are: 1) Good Ventilation System: Balinese traditional houses give full attention on air circulation, by maximizing the use of big windows (more than two in one house) and a free space between the roof and the wall. 2) Strong Foundation: Based on Tri Loka concept, a building is considered the same like a human body which consist of three main parts; foot, body, and head. Therefore, the foundation part (foot) of traditional Balinese house is made the strongest to keep the other parts; main building (body), roof (head). 3) Massive Yard: The backyard in Balinese traditional house has the same function as in a Japanese traditional house, according to Ashihara (1970). The back garden occupies as house interior where the interaction between human (Bhuwana Alit) and nature (Bhuwana Agung) go on. It is purposely built as an oxygen supplier, a space for planting the greens. 4) Guarding Wall: A traditional house naturally has a high wall surrounding it like a castle. This wall purposes as a guard, separating the house yard from public environment. The wall keeps one’s privacy and is believed to be able to protect the house from black magic. 5) Land Size: A traditional Balinese house requires a necessary spacious land, about 300 square meters, usually consisting of nine buildings, enough to shelter a big family members. In many big cities where land is expensive, that can pose a serious problem.

6) Time to Build: A traditional house is longer to complete than a modern, minimalist house. Building a traditional Balinese house is a wearisome work requiring the advice of a special architect called Undagi. An undagi is usually also a sculpture who carves relief in several parts of the house. A relief usually shows traditional stories containing moral obligations. Sizes are not in meters or feet, but using traditional dimension called depa (furthest distance between tips of one’s hands), a lengkat (knuckle). 7) Maintenance: A traditional Balinese house requires a special treatment, because most of parts are made from stone and dry grass. This bits and pieces should be checked regularly, for example the dry grass roof should be renewed every five years. 8) Long time ago Balinese built such a toilet near a river or spring. Therefore, they only prepared very simple facilities inside their house enough for bathing and provided water to drink.

Traditional Balinese concept adopts Hinduism and Chinese Buddhism. The chief ingredient, a Hindu’s concept called Tri Mandala, conveys an integrated three areas; Nista, Mandala, Utama. Nista is an area for the dirty aspects (real or abstract). Nista area is on the southern side of a house or a temple. The southern side belongs to sea, the neutral agent where bad auras will be dilluted. Mandala is the neutral area. Mandala is located between the south and north side. Utama is holy area. It is located on the northeastern side. The north belongs to mountain, the holy area according to Hinduism.

Buildings in a Traditional Balinese House

From the out side, a Balinese traditional house looks like a small castle surrounded by red brick walls. This small castle extends from north to south like a long square. A traditional Balinese house consists of nine buildings which have different function. Those building are: 1) Sanggah/ Merajan, 2) Meten/ Bale Daja, 3) Bali Dangin/ Bale Gede, 4) Bale Dauh, 5) Sake Enem, 6) Paon/ Pewaregan, 7) Jineng, 8) Angkul-angkul, and 9) Aling-aling.. [Source: Bali A Traveler’s Companion and Bali Tourism Information Book 2008]

1) Sanggah/ Merajan is a shrine dedicated for praying to God and family ancestors. Sanggah is located in Utama area (northeast side) of the house, as told on the Tri Mandala concept. The Chinese culture seamlessly is seen in the form of two guarding statues on right and left side of entrance door, as seen in the many Chinese temples. Sanggah usually hosts historical relief which contain moral messages on the outer wall.

2) Meten/ Bale Daja is building for the oldest family member. Meten consist of one bedroom and a terrace. This building is located on Utama area (north side of the house), because the older family member is usually a respected priest for the family temple. In this building especially on the door and windows, you will see some peacock relief or Balinese ox. Ox is one of holy animals and used as symbol for honorable person, as also seen in the Indian culture. Meanwhile, peacock is a symbol of honorable person in Chinese culture.

3) Bale Dauh is a building for all family members, except the oldest, located on Madya area (west side of the house). Bale Dauh consists of several bedrooms and one terrace. Bale Dauh is usually bigger than the other. The relief of plants can be found in many parts of this building symbolizing prosperous and unity of the family unit.

4) Bale Dangin is an open air building in Madya area (east side), with a single wall on the back side. On the east side of this building is one big wood bed for Manusa Yadnya, a ritual ceremony dedicated for human rites aiming at cleansing the soul. The building also keeps various ceremonial equipments. On the front of the main post which props up the roof, there is a Garuda statue —it has an eagle’s head and wings, but the body is human—or a lion with two wings. Those animals are believed as the guardians from black magic, especially when the family runs a Manusa Yadnya.

5) Sake Enem is a building for guests. Similar to Bale Dangin, this is an open air structure with a single wall on the south side. Sake Enem also has a big wooden bed on the center. In certain part of the island, the family doesn’t build a wooden bed, so guests instead simply sit above a plaited mat on the floor. Sake Enem is located in Nista area (south side), considering that they no idea whether the guest bring good or bad auras. So if they bring bad atmosphere, it can be neutralized soon.

6) Jineng/Lumbung is a rice barn. This warehouse is located behind Sake Enem, near the kitchen paon. Jineng/ Lumbung is positioned higher than other buildings. It has a post on every corner that looks like a big pigeon house with a door. Usually a non-permanent wooden stair Jan/ Gerejak is provided to take collect the rice.

7) The kitchen, Paon/ Pewaregan is located on the south side of the house belonging to Nista area, because it is a place where the family keeps the equipment for slaughtering animals and cutting trees, including knife, axe, etc. Paon could also mean fire, and located so because the god of fire has the authority on south. Paon consists of two parts, the first open air section Jalikan is the true cooking area with wood fire oven. The second part is a room where food and other cooking apparatus are kept.

8) Angkul-Angkul is a traditional gate comprised of a pair of two red brick blocks in a row position with a wooden door in between. Angkul-angkul has a pyramid roof made from dry grass. Angkul-angkul is normally higher than the wall surrounding the house. On the right and left side of this gate there are guardian statues in scary expression. Often they are a male and female with both palm of hand in front of their breast. This pose is a welcoming gesture of Balinese people which is followed by saying Om Swastiastu (welcome greeting).

Aling-Aling: Balinese people are very friendly in a sense that they always welcome guests. Naturally they never close the gate. To keep their privacy, Balinese people build a small wall between Angkul-angkul (gate) and the house yard, called Aling-aling. Aling-aling makes someone outside can not see their the people inside.

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

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