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Bali Arts and Crafts
Cloth/Textiles Traditional Art Modern Art The Keris
Masks Stone Carving Wood Carving Other Art

Until this century Balinese artists produced work (paintings, stone & wood carving etc.) under the patronage of wealthy kings or as gifts to decorate the local temple. As such the artists were only doing their part as a member of the community and therefore never gave much thought to be recognized for their efforts by signing their work. In addition, art had to follow very stringent guidelines so whilst the quality may have varied the content was quite standard. It wasn't until the arrival of European artists that Balinese artists learned to express themselves individually and then began signing their work.

Cloth & Textiles
Bali has basically 3 indigenous textiles: Endek, Gringsing and Tenun Ikat. That being said most of the swaths of cloth and fancy printed apparel on sale in Bali are really Batik and native to Java, not Bali. FYI, the intricate designs on Batik cloth are made by applying wax to the fabric prior to dying each time another color is added.

Inasmuch as Endek is really only popular with the Balinese it is not mass produced - so it is quite safe to say that any endek you purchase will have been hand made. It is a laborious affair. The horizontal threads are laid out and pre dyed with a desired pattern in a tie dye type of operation ( the fabric may be dyed several times with different colors ). Once dyed the threads are dried then woven into the vertical threads on the loom. These vertical threads are only one color -usually black. It is not until the weaving is complete that one knows for sure the quality and clarity of the designer's work. This is just a rough idea how the process works, it's actually much more complicated than this with several people - men included - to make just one bolt of cloth. The finished bolt is about 20 feet long by 3.5 feet wide. It takes about 10 days just to weave one bolt of cloth - so think of the value !

Now, if you think that's tricky try it with both the vertical and horizontal threads at the same time. Imagine a weaver must come up with a design then "tye dye" both the horizontal and vertical threads separately 2-3 times depending on the number of colors used. Even the slightest miscalculation when dying the yarn or a mistake by the weaver and months of work are lost. This is basically how Gringsing is produced in the Balinese Village of Tenganan - one of two or three places in the entire world capable of producing this extraordinary textile. As mentioned many times in this is one of the best souvenirs available to visitors to Bali.

The third cloth, tenun ikat is also popular in Bali. Like endek the horizontal threads are dyed and woven into a solid vertical thread on the loom. The difference is that the patterns are solid colored blocks or simple crossing patterns. This cloth is also mostly produced by hand and is very popular in fashionable circles for clothing, home furnishings and accessories.


Traditional Kamasan Art
This is the most traditional of all Balinese paintings. Originating in the Klungkung Regency during the reign Kingdom of Gelgel it was widely admired throughout Bali. The artists specializing in this art form are known as "Sangging". In days gone by these Snagging artists would often be commissioned to travel to other kingdoms to decorate a palace or temple with this style of painting.

Kamasan is easily distinguished in the market. The paint color is predominately orange (sometimes blue) and the theme always depicts Hindu epics and are based on the Javanese Wayang characters. The characters are divided into two camps: Good, ( those with refined facial features and slim bodies) and Evil, (those with distorted faces, red color and distended bodies). The painting is a large canvas divided up into panels with each panel telling the story of a well known adventure. Years ago Kamasan art was placed primarily in temples as wall hangings, used as curtains, or as banners during festivals. (Go to the Kerta Goa Hall of Justice in Klungkung to see fine examples of this style). The paintings are used much the same way today with restaurants now often using the canvas for menu covers.

Kamasan still today has Sangging artists dedicated to painting in the traditional Kamasan style. Easily the best known Kamasan artist is I Nyoman Mandra who has his own school, and does restoration work. Bpk. Mandra can be found in Klungkung.

Modern Art
As mentioned earlier starting this century Balinese artists came under more direct influence of Western artists with the arrival of European artists. The most famous of these were German, Walter Spies and Dutchman, Rudolf Bonnet. These two painters taught the Balinese painters new, more realistic and expressionistic art - scenes from every day life, landscapes and the like - which now dominates the paintings produced on Bali. Later on and together with local artist Gede Agung Sukawati the Pitamaha Painters Association was established. Styles which sprang from this effort are briefly described below. When looking to buy keep in mind that prices vary widely depending on the size and the amount and clarity of detail.

These large paintings are easily identified because every square inch of the canvas is filled with tiny figures going about life's daily activities (some quite graphic if you look hard enough). Usually bright colored, these paintings seem to be getting funnier and funnier (or sarcastic depending on your view of video camera tourists being painted into village life) as the years go by.

Keliki paintings are generally the very small paintings you see hanging on pillars and odd spaces in different shops. These too are crammed with little images but look closely though and you will see that the subject matter is very different - usually the subject is the supernatural with fantastically detailed demons.

These are the bird, flower and butterfly paintings you see all over. The amount of detail and correct proportion determine the price but works of the best (i.e. I Made Supartha commands up to US$ 5,000 for a good sized painting).

With highly stylized human features -strong lines, long necks, proud posture, and the like identify these paintings to have been influenced by Walter Spies. The paintings are usually large and colorful without being bright. Such artists as Dewa Putu Bedil are always in demand and you may well have to commission the best and wait quite some time before you own one of this style.

Nowadays there are many Balinese and Indonesian artists who practice what can best be described as Modern Art. Some like Made Winata, Krijono, and Joko amongst others have achieved a great deal of commercial success combining their Indonesian perspective with abstract figures and new colors.

The Keris
These daggers with their wavy blades are famous the world over. Going back as far as Hindu Javanese of Majapahit in the 13th century, these beautiful daggers are much more than a weapon - they are a revered symbol of the man who owns it and each Keris is deeply believed to have a life and spirit of its own. Indeed there are stories of kings, too busy with affairs of the palace to attend their own weddings, letting the Keris stand in as the groom. And not just any will Keris will do, a Keris must be matched spiritually to its owner to protect him from harm.

Since the Keris is found in many parts of Indonesia, there are correspondingly many different styles of blades, handles and sheaths - none any better than another just personal preference. In Bali the Keris is usually quite large and has a wavy double edged blade ( be careful when you unsheathe it, it's sharp! ) with an ornately carved handle (or hilt) representing one of the gods from the Ramayana epic. Also with the Balinese Keris the area connecting the blade to the handle is embedded with semi precious stones as is the sheath. As a comparison, the Keris from Java are usually smaller and less presumptuous and the Keris from North Sumatra are usually with straight, one sided blades.

An old, valuable Keris can easily fetch US$ 5,000. but an average Keris is about US$ 200 - US$ 500. When buying, attention to detail is everything. Look closely at the area that joins the blade to the handle, does the handle look new and the blade old?, is the blade intricately forged? etc.

Practically from the time you step off the plane you will see masks of different sizes, shapes and colors. Whilst these days many masks are produced solely as tourist souvenirs not to take masks seriously in Bali would be a mistake. When a Westerner dons a mask at a party it is to pretend he is someone else. For Indonesians - especially Balinese to don a mask is to begin living the life of the mask. Masks used in performances of sacred dances are sacred and as such revered and kept so in temples. You will not find such masks sitting idly in a store waiting to be purchased. That being said, there are still fine masks - all works of art - that are no longer used available for sale (for a price).

Without going too deeply into (there are entire books devoted to the subject) most masks you will see are representations of Ramayana Epic. The masks with refined features such as a short pointed nose and white face represent Noblemen, while those with garish features - red faces with bulbous noses and missing teeth represent buffoons, idiots, liars and cheats. If you look closely at the eyes you will be able to see Chinese characters as well - they are the ones with the thinner eyes.

Lastly, today masks are being made in modern shapes like a crescent moons and painted abstract colors but these are really only for souvenirs and decoration. A fine mask properly displayed and well lit adds a lot to any home or office. Most of the best masks can be found in the village of Mas.

Stone Carving
Driving around Bali it would difficult not to be impressed with the majesty of the intricate stone carvings that adorn the thousands of temples that dot the island. This stone is known locally as "paras" and is not really stone in the Western sense. Rather paras is volcanic ash mixed with sand and clay and compressed over the centuries into a hard material similar to sandstone or soapstone. As such the material is quite soft, decays easily and moss seems to grow on it overnight - so if you are walking through a rice paddy and happen to see an old, blackened, moss covered statue do not think it is centuries old - it may be 5 or at the most 30 years old !

Traditionally stone has been carved into the shapes of demons and deities to decorate temples and courtyards of royal families - rarely does the average Balinese have any stone relief in his living area. Stone carvers have been around a lot longer than painters and have never been subject to the same strict rules as painters. The imaginations of the stone carvers has always been allowed to run riot i.e. gods with multiple sex organs and even scenes incorporating everyday life with today's technology such as airplanes are now carved into temple relieves.

To get a good idea of the range of items for sale a trip through Batubulan is a nice day spent. Whether or not you are ready to ship a 500 lb. statue back home is up to you but almost any statue would be focal point of your garden.

Wood Carving
Wood carving shares a lot of similarities with stone carving inasmuch as both were used primarily to decorate temples. You can see traditional wood carving used to decorate the pillars and beams used to support the roofs of temples (and lately restaurants as well). However understanding that wood carvings are much easier to transport and have more practical uses in home decorating it should come as no surprise to learn that Westerners have begun to have a strong influence on what is now being produced. Not that that is all bad. Traditionally wood carvers have also had pretty much free reign to experiment and many have become more sculptors than carvers with the best wood carvers turning unusual pieces of wood that most folks would just as soon throw away into masterpieces. However, still the most sought after works are the traditional Ramayana figurines.

There are many varieties of wood used. As a general rule of thumb all things being equal the softer the wood the faster it grows and the easier it is to carve and hence the price is lower. Popular soft woods are merantie, crocodile and hibiscus. Harder woods such as nangka (jackfruit), and kampor are much heavier and can be more intricately carved. Either way a word of caution - The wood is not always thoroughly dry before being carved and if you take it to a climate with less humidity it may crack. So sometimes it's better to take the older carving that's collected its share of dust and polish it up yourself when you get back home.

Other - Kites
Whilst maybe not a traditional art form, in fact kites were only recently introduced into Bali by the Japanese during their occupation of Indonesia in World War 2, the Balinese have quickly turned them into an art form. It is not unusual to see a group of men struggling to put a kite 4 meters (yes, 4 meters - some of these contraptions can be down right dangerous to passing aircraft !) into the back of a truck to take down to the beach. In fact there are laws against flying kites too close around the airport. The shapes can be winged eagles or tall ships complete with main mast and sails ! Truly a delight. And when these really big kites are airborne the wind on the string produces a loud, hypnotic humming sound. Serious competitions have begun to be staged with international competitors trying their best against the Balinese. Airworthy small versions make interesting souvenirs for young children.

Balinese Arts & Crafts

The Balinese seem to be the most talented of all of Indonesia's gifted artisans. Over the centuries there has been a steady steam of immigrants introducing new ideas, coupled with the generous patronage of Kingdoms past, Balinese artists have become justly famous.

Indeed the number of foreigners who have been inspired by Bali as well as the number of Indonesians from other islands who have come to Bali to hone their craft are testimony to the importance of Bali in the art world.

As such provides a brief - very brief - overview of traditional art forms just to acquaint and alert the casual or first time visitor to some of the art produced on Bali and give greater value to what otherwise would be just another curio.

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