IN 2013 A total of 429,000 Western Australians visited Bali, with more than a thousand arriving every day. Most were tourists, but a relationship started much earlier based not on tourism but trade of natural resources. Long before we started going to Bali, nomadic Indonesian traders were coming here in search of trochus shell and trepang, a sea cucumber delicacy valued for its flavour-enhancing and medicinal properties. There is firm evidence of trade going back hundreds of years with Aboriginal coastal groups, and even today goods and produce exported from WA end up in Balinese homes and tourist resorts. Likewise, large quantities of Balinese goods – from handicrafts to homewares and furniture – are now exported over here. One Western Australian currently trading in Bali is artist Rodney Glick, whose interest in coffee led him to open a coffee shop in Ubud with partner David Sullivan, and then to expand into coffee roasting and distribution. Their company, Seniman Industries, designed a coffee-table book about coffee for the exhibition BALI: return economy, which could be read while sitting in Seniman’s wonderful bar rocker chairs.
The exhibition was held at the iconic Fremantle Arts Centre as part of the Perth International Arts Festival. Curators Chris Hill and Ric Spencer, in conjunction with Bali-based Exhibition Manager Desak Dharmayanti, had the idea of bringing together artists from Western Australia and Bali, and including works from private collections. They would deal with themes as broad as trade, tourism, politics, identity, environment, consumption, geography, lifestyle, terrorism, globalisation, myth and development. This was a unique opportunity to see the more interesting art that has emerged from the singular and ever-changing relationship between island neighbours.
The relationship is not restricted to tourism and trade. For example, we have research by Tony Cunningham into natural dye plants used in traditional textile production and Jonathan McIntosh’s extensive research and writing about gamelan music. Anthropologist Carol Warren has, for many years, been researching issues relating to local politics and development. In the area of art–learning exchange, Paul Trinidad has been successful in forging links between the University of WA and ISI (the Balinese art school attached to Udayana University), and students now have the opportunity to complete an elective unit there. Some Western Australians are involved in philanthropic work in Bali, moved by the levels of poverty so close to home. An example is John Fawcett, whose foundation has saved the sight of many thousands of Balinese through its Sight Restoration and Blindness Prevention Project, and who, before moving to Bali in the ’80s, was a notable ceramic artist. His work was included in Bali: return economy.
YET SUCH RELATIONSHIPS are surprisingly rare. Apart from handicrafts brought back as souvenirs, there is little interest in or knowledge about either traditional or contemporary Balinese art. There are a few private collections in WA and of these, exhibition co-curator Chris Hill’s collection – drawn together over numerous trips to Bali from the 1970s – is one of the most extensive. No significant Balinese works are to be found in our public collections. Balinese art is better appreciated in Europe and elsewhere in Asia, even though we are so close. It seems that although we choose Bali for our holidays, for ‘culture’ we look further afield – west beyond the horizon, for that long-lost home.
One of our ideas was that the exhibition would foster stronger cultural links. We would expose Western Australians to contemporary and traditional Balinese art that was challenging, and had the potential to bring about greater understanding between our two cultures. We would mix classical Balinese works with contemporary art in all its forms. The Fremantle Arts Centre, with its multicultural outlook and focus on community engagement, was the place to have such an exhibition. It would, we realised, be the first significant show featuring Balinese art to be held in Western Australia.
We began with the title, BALI: return economy, but with few preconceptions other than a desire to show significant Balinese art to a WA audience, to show work by WA artists with connections to Bali, and to explore some of the issues that have emerged from close relationships with our neighbour. We did not expect to reveal ‘the real Bali’ – a nebulous term reflecting a romantic view harking back to an ideal that has never existed – but to explore contemporary issues and begin a conversation.
On the way to Bali on our first research trip, with a long list of artists, museums and galleries to visit, we wondered about our fellow passengers and why they continue going to Bali in spite of negative media reports and government travel warnings to ‘exercise a high degree of caution’. We are constantly being told about the dangers of dengue fever, rabies, methanol-spiked drinks and traffic accidents, and are shown images of drunken revellers, piles of rubbish and drug smugglers in Kerobokan prison. A recent series on Channel 7, What Really Happens in Bali, focused on what can go wrong and, of course, there is a lot that can and does go wrong. The sort of behaviour it featured certainly occurs, but is comparable to any populous city and is the least of the problems that Bali faces as a result of the relentless influx of tourists, many of them from WA. We were soon to learn that the real issues that concern the Balinese relate more to the country’s infrastructure not coping, its natural environment disappearing and its culture being threatened.
For tourists, it is problems relating to infrastructure that have the most direct impact. Roads, water supply, waste management and power supply are all stretched to the limit. On our drive from the airport to Ubud we experienced frustrating delays due to traffic congestion. Frustrating but not surprising when you consider that Bali, with a population of 4.22 million, is smaller in area than Perth, which has less than half as many inhabitants. Bali, a small island in a developing country, has to cope with more than three million foreign and a staggering six million domestic visitors every year. No wonder its infrastructure is struggling.
So why do so many Western Australians go to Bali, in spite of all these negative reports? Obviously, it is cheap. You could easily spend more in a week at Rottnest Island, twenty-five kilometres off the Perth coast, than on a package holiday to Bali. Bali is also close and a shorter journey for us than Sydney or Melbourne. As a result, a holiday in Bali with a group of friends has become almost a rite of passage for young Western Australians, while for families the resorts provide a comfortable and stress-free holiday experience. It was different for young Western Australians who went to Bali in the 1960s and ’70s. Then, the island was on the hippy trail and very much a destination for backpackers keen to experience an exotic culture, perhaps on a quest for a more spiritual way of life. Most stopped for a few weeks to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and surf, but others stayed longer and went deeper into the local culture. John Darling, originally from Victoria but later a resident of Western Australia, lived in Bali through most of the ’70s and ’80s and built a house on land owned by the family of I Gusti Nyoman Lempad, Bali’s most celebrated artist. John was beginning his career as a documentary filmmaker when Lempad died in 1978, at the extraordinary age of 116, and he was there to film the cremation ceremony. The film he produced and co-directed, Lempad of Bali, sets Lempad’s life and death against the turbulent history of Bali during his lifetime. An early decision of ours was to include this film in the exhibition.
Carol Warren pointed out in our exhibition catalogue that although these earlier visitors were not big spenders, by staying in family-run losmen (Balinese guesthouse accommodation) and eating at local restaurants their money went directly to local Balinese families. This is in marked contrast to today’s tourists whose money is spent in resorts, restaurants, bars and nightclubs that more often than not are owned by non-Balinese from Jakarta or overseas. Carol estimates that around 85 per cent of profits from the luxury tourism industry leave Bali, and in an exhibition panel discussion she promoted the benefits of alternative small-scale, environmentally aware tourism. We also heard from three other speakers about how culturally rewarding travel in Bali can be both for visitors and our Balinese hosts. Well-known collector Ian Bernadt related how he had spent days trying to trace an artist whose work he had seen but whose name he had forgotten. He finally located the artist, Wayan Bendi, in the village of Batuan and ended up becoming friends with the family and buying two important works that we included in the show. John Johnson, on an early visit to Bali, saw paintings he was told came from the village of Kamasan. Intrigued, he made his way to the village by public transport, made friends with artists, started buying their work and is now writing a book featuring the major artists of Kamasan. We also included works from his collection in BALI: return economy. If more of the one thousand of us who travel to Bali every day could learn from these examples, everyone would benefit. All it takes is a willingness to explore, to meet local people and make some sort of commitment to engaging with Balinese beliefs and ways of life.
EARLIER VISITORS WOULD have experienced Balinese culture more directly than today’s tourists, but both first-time and repeat visitors invariably comment on Bali’s culture and friendly people. Even visitors staying at a resort on a package holiday will see Balinese in formal dress on their way to ceremonies (often a family of four on one scooter), drive through villages decorated for weddings and see beautifully made offerings in shrines and on pathways. They may go to dance performances and hear distant gamelan music and chants from Hindu temples. But on the whole they are experiencing Balinese culture at a very superficial level; it has inevitably become ‘packaged’ for tourist consumption. Mass tourism has led to a concern that a trivial, ‘Bali-style’ culture is all that will remain. On our very first visit to an artist’s studio we saw that it is the preservation of their culture that is uppermost in the minds of Balinese artists.
We called on sculptor Wayan Upadana at his studio in the village of Blahbatu, north-east of Denpasar, where he lives and works. Recently married, he lives in a typical family compound with his parents and other family members. We were impressed by his commitment and the technical skills in his sculptures made from resin and car paint. We refrained from asking artists to ‘translate’ their work, but it was clear from his conversation and the titles of his works that he was concerned about overdevelopment in Bali. One work we selected for the show depicting two very cute-looking pigs wallowing in a basin full of chocolate is entitled Globabisation (babi is the Indonesian word for pig).
Another artist who comments on globalisation is Jango Pramartha, a senior artist and influential cartoonist who lives in Denpasar adjacent to the offices of his cartoon magazine, Bog-Bog Bali. Jango attended Murdoch University in Perth and has previously exhibited in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Sadly, his work emphasises gloBALIsation, still pointing to the same unresolved political and developmental issues.
Before leaving for Bali we called on Fremantle artist Annette Seeman, whose relationship with Bali comes through her father Tom, an Indonesian national and resident of Java who was, for a time, President Sukarno’s personal photographer. The family would holiday on land they owned in West Bali, and one of the most striking images we chose for the exhibition was a photograph of Tom, aged ten, holding the tail of a tiger that has just been hunted and shot. This was in 1932 and the Bali tiger (a distinct subspecies) became extinct only a few years later. In 1989 Annette, with husband John Teschendorff (represented in the exhibition by a series of dark drawings of a figurative sculpture he bought in Sebatu), built a villa overlooking the River Wos outside Ubud where they produced the works presented in the show. Annette’s sculptures were carved with artisans in the village of Sebatu. Once back in WA her father, by then in his 70s and a keen conservationist, assisted with finishing the works. A series of photographs illustrated this cross-generational and cross-cultural piece of art and history.
The bombings of 2002 loom large in any conversation about Bali. Although visitor numbers dropped off dramatically in the aftermath, they soon recovered and the traumatic events seemed to strengthen Western Australians’ relationship with Bali. Adrian Vickers, in his book Bali: A Paradise Created (Tuttle Publishing, 2012) quotes a tourist as saying, with a sense of ownership, ‘How can they do this to our Bali?’ This feeling has grown in recent years, particularly within the Western Australian media, and stems from a feeling that Bali has somehow become an extended part of Australian culture. The exhibition contained three poignant works relating to the bombing and terrorism, at both local and global levels: one by Dewa Putu Mokoh showing the van exploding outside the Sari Club; a large painting by I Wayan Bendi depicting the Twin Towers attacks but in a Balinese setting; and John Darling’s documentary Healing Bali, which explored the aftermath of the attack.
Collaborative projects like Paul Trinidad and I Wayan Sujana Suklu’s drawing installation were also included, alongside a huge market installation with photographs of Caucasian-looking Balinese dolls found in a shopping centre in Kuta, paintings of masked faces, one-off fashion ensembles, watercolours, Kamasan paintings, surf boards and political cartoon books. The exhibition was well received, with a jam-packed opening night and a great opening weekend with many of the artists from both Bali and WA in attendance.
THE OVERALL EFFECT created by the combination of works in BALI: return economy was a sense of the layers of complexities and networks of associations between the two locations, and within the island of Bali. The exhibition acted as a point of departure for more conversations and discussions around this relationship between neighbours and the issues currently affecting Bali. Our impression, travelling back and forth, was of a closing space between modernity and tradition, pressures of development and the desire to display Balinese culture to the masses of tourists. Within this narrowing gap we encountered Western Australians immersed in the Balinese community and Balinese artists working to build new forms of politically and environmentally engaged art.
In memory of Chris Hill, who passed away recently and without whose extensive knowledge and love of Balinese culture and art this exhibition would not have been possible.