NUS Press Pte Ltd

This article explores gender in relation to the art historical narrative of Balinese painting. Taking the practice of key artists from Kamasan village as a focus, it looks at generational change in artistic production, the gendered flows of ideas, the negotiation of hierarchies and the embodied relationship to narrative. Women actively circumvent the hierarchies that define ideas about artistic practice through participation in formal art school training, membership of art collectives, engagement with art collectors/patrons, and exhibitions. Furthermore, I suggest that a specific focus on the place of gender in traditional art enables us to see how painting has created enhanced opportunities for women to change aspects of traditional relationships.

Introduction: Locating Balinese Women Artists in Indonesian Art History

This paper focusses on a group of female artists who exist largely outside art historical categorisation. Based in the village of Kamasan, the centre of traditional Balinese painting, they are marginalised in the sense that they are absent from both national and local art histories, and because their work [End Page 77] crosses the boundaries between art and craft. While women are in general underrepresented in Indonesian art history,2 and representations of female bodies under the male gaze dominate many of the most prominent collections of Indonesian modern art,3 in this paper I deal with a distinct set of concerns. I argue that by exploring the work of artists who seem to defy categorisation or who do not conform to the distinctions of the art-historical canon, we are challenged not only to think about inserting women into art histories, but to rethink concepts such as authorship and originality, to evaluate links between gender and creative output, and to circumvent text-oriented approaches to studying art. Furthermore, the artists discussed here contribute insights into generational change in artistic production and the gendered flows of ideas, the negotiation of hierarchies and the embodied relationship to narrative.

I begin with a brief description of why these artists are marginal in the framework of modern Indonesian art history as well as in their own local art histories, followed by some observations of how local hierarchies define ideas about the village art tradition and how female artists circumvent these hierarchies. I then discuss the ways in which some women have been involved in negotiating the art world, including by participation in formal art school training, membership of art collectives, engagement with curators and collectors, or involvement in art exhibitions in contemporary art spaces. Although we now understand modernity in Southeast Asia as a much more complex process than traditional versus modernising tendencies,4 modernity in Bali undeniably involves the incorporation of modern into traditional forms.5 A specific focus on the place of gender in traditional art enables us to see how painting has created enhanced opportunities for women to change aspects of traditional relationships.

The material presented here is based on interviews with Balinese artists and the study of historical paintings, textual descriptions and photographs of artists at work.6 My first scholarly encounter with the paintings of Kamasan took place in 2009 when I began doctoral research on the Forge Collection of Balinese Art at the Australian Museum in Sydney. This collection was acquired by the late visual anthropologist Anthony Forge (1929–91) in the 1970s and is the largest public collection of traditional Balinese art sourced from a single collector outside Bali.7 Not only is it the largest overseas collection in terms of the number of paintings, it is the best documented and contains written and visual documentation of painting practice, key artists, the provenance of works and the narratives that inform painting. My subsequent fieldwork in Bali was partly motivated by the observation that while women appeared frequently in the images Forge took of artists at work, they were virtually absent from his written account.8 My curiosity about the roles of women was [End Page 78] heightened when I found a photograph of another anonymous female artist, taken by the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1949, which I discuss in the next section.

This approach highlights the extent to which gender has important methodological implications for the insights we gather in the field, particularly regarding the kinds of access granted to male and female researchers, but also for the way we write about art. Besides my own research experience confirming the extent to which women artists had been disregarded in art historical discourse, Balinese art itself falls outside the broader narrative of Indonesian modern art.9 It is usually treated as a separate art historical school with a trajectory that sits apart from the Indonesian art history centred on the neighbouring island of Java, a narrative dominated by tensions between the stylistic and conceptual differences of the Bandung and Yogyakarta schools.10 The development of Balinese art is usually described as a response to foreign influences and the colonial experience, predicated on the idea that the arrival of European artists in the 1930s transformed a waning art scene and served as the key agents of modernisation.11 Although the Dutch colonial mindset recognised the practical talents of traditional artists, they were regarded as uncreative and considered to produce unoriginal and lacklustre work. However, while scholarship on modern Balinese art history has tended to ignore Kamasan art traditions in general, in the next section I describe how women artists are additionally marginalised in art history, with patriarchal structures working against them in both their own society and in the approaches of scholars from different periods and generations.

Kamasan Art Traditions and Anonymous Women

In precolonial Bali, the commoners (jaba) of Kamasan were artisans to the royal court of Gelgel and its successor dynasty Klungkung. Once the royal courts were eradicated by the Dutch in the early 20th century, painting was considered to be in decline due to the loss of courtly patronage and the presumption by foreigners that paintings produced for commercial purposes lack religious significance. Yet, as a genre with roots in the sculptural art of the Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Majapahit in East Java (1273–1527), the cultural values associated with this tradition are strongly in evidence in Bali today. In terms of spatial arrangement, Kamasan village is divided into ten wards (banjar) reflecting the specialised services once provided by artisans to the court, including goldsmiths (pande mas), smiths (pande) and painters (sangging). The work of the painters is constructed around narrative, depicting versions of stories and myths of Indian and indigenous origin [End Page 79] found in written, oral and performance genres. Once produced primarily for display in temples and palaces, these narratives serve a didactic and devotional function, and the stories depicted acquire many layers of meaning in the context of their display. They are intended to gratify and entertain the gods during their visits to the temple, as well as the human participants in ritual activities. Kamasan painting also has a shared heritage with the shadow-puppet (wayang) theatre—the figures in paintings are referred to as wayang and are depicted in the same manner as flat shadow-puppets except in three-quarter view.

Just as the sanggar or collective has played a fundamental role in the development of Indonesian modern art,12 Kamasan painting takes place in communal spaces and involves a great deal of collaborative work. While both men and women are involved in the production and exchange of art, not everyone who participates in this work is accorded the same status. There is a hierarchy in the production process and particular roles are closely associated with each gender, with much depending on the classification and definition of an artist (pelukis). Nowadays artists formally assert their authorship of paintings by writing their names on the backs of the cloth and this is usually the name of the person who draws the composition. Roughly speaking, painting is broken into the following stages of production: the initial outline is drawn on the cotton cloth in pencil and gone over in black ink (mangsi); colour is applied in stages (ngwarna); the cloth is polished (nggerus); finally, black ink is used to go over the initial drawing and embellish various features (ngawi). Kamasan artists adhere to the view that the composition (ngedun karang), or arrangement of the narrative components on the cloth, requires the highest degree of skill. Producing the initial sketch (nyeket, ngereka) is considered to be the work of men.

Many women involved in painting-related activity do not call themselves artists, undertaking those roles described as subsidiary or less important. The situation with regard to gender-differentiated work is not dissimilar to other forms of labour division in different Balinese contexts. For instance, women’s actual involvement in farming often contradicts what men and women say about the division of labour and the relative importance of the roles performed by each gender.13 In painting, it is commonly acknowledged that women are responsible for the colouring process and for the marketing of paintings. However, in practice substantial parts of the painting process are the ‘sole responsibility’ of women, while certain activities are regarded as the specific domain of men, because they require great strength and specialist expertise.14 These observations resonate with similar statements made by men and women in Kamasan. [End Page 80]

Once the composition has been drawn onto the cloth, the steps of preparing and applying colour are overwhelmingly the domain of women. It is presumed that these activities do not require particular skills and that anyone can learn how to colour. In practice it is highly unusual for men to prepare colour, for although the preparation of pigment is relatively straightforward, it is monotonous and time-consuming work. The ochre colours (pere) are obtained from hard pieces of rock and have to be ground down with water; it may take some hours of continual grinding until the pigment becomes sufficiently fine. Thus, while preparing colour may require more tenacity than proficiency, poorly prepared pigments can ruin an otherwise fine work.

Yet when the anthropologist Anthony Forge, who conducted fieldwork in Kamasan in the period 1972–73, described the preparation of paint, he wrote that the “artist prepares the paint himself, grinding the ochre and mixing it with water and ancur”.15 Forge’s gendered pronouns are misleading, for his own visual documentation of artists at work makes it apparent that women prepare colour. With this in mind, I now make further reference to the apparent discrepancies in a small selection of visual, written and oral accounts describing art making. In particular, I emphasise the existence of visual records ostensibly depicting women involved in the act of painting, which call into question the written accounts of male observers.

Towards the end of 1949, the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004) made a day trip to the village of Kamasan, accompanied by his Indonesian-born wife Ratna Cartier-Bresson and his Balinese hosts Cokorda Agung Sukawati and Rudolf Bonnet. On assignment from Life magazine to document the official transfer of sovereignty from the Netherlands to Indonesia in Jakarta on 27 December 1949,16 Cartier-Bresson spent the weeks preceding this engagement enjoying the hospitality of the ruler of Ubud, Cokorda Agung Sukawati (1910–78) in Bali. Since the 1920s, under his patronage, the village of Ubud had developed as a centre of art, culture and cross-cultural exchange and played host to several foreign artists, including the Dutch Rudolf Bonnet (1895–1978). In Kamasan the group intended to visit an artist who made paintings for the Ubud royal family, but when they arrived at the house they discovered that the artist had gone to the market and only his daughter was at home. The brief notes Cartier-Bresson made of his visit to Kamasan describe the many photographs he took on that day; however the only image ever released for public circulation was of an anonymous young woman, whom Cartier-Bresson recorded as the daughter of the artist (Figure 1). [End Page 81]

Figure 1. Ni Nyoman Runis, 1949 (photo Henri Cartier-Bresson).
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Figure 1.

Ni Nyoman Runis, 1949 (photo Henri Cartier-Bresson).

The image was published the following year in a photo essay for the French women’s magazine Point de Vue Images Du Monde.17 It depicts a young woman seated with legs folded underneath, behind a low wooden table. Her hair is pulled back and she is dressed from the waist down in a checked sarong, secured with a plain-coloured sash. She has her back to a carved doorway leading into the interior room. The surface of the small table has a painting draped across it, depicting what looks like scenes from the narrative Arjunawiwaha.18 The woman is applying the final outline and embellishment in black ink (ngawi). Her left hand rests on the painting while the right dips a thin bamboo brush into a pot of black ink on the ground beside her.

Although this image was published without any accompanying textual explanation, in his notes Cartier-Bresson made the following remarks:

Painting is a man’s work, women were weaving, but since the war the textile is lacking so his daughter took up the men’s job. The subjects of her paintings are taken from the Hindu epic the Ramayana which is familiar to every one in Indonesia; she paints with a bamboo.19 [End Page 82]

Figure 2. Men Soka (Ni Nengah Sabret), 1973 (Australian Museum, photo Anthony Forge).
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Figure 2.

Men Soka (Ni Nengah Sabret), 1973 (Australian Museum, photo Anthony Forge).

Here we have the impression that the scene he recorded was out of the ordinary, that the woman painting was in fact doing a ‘men’s job’. However, once family members in Kamasan identified the anonymous subject as Ni Nyoman Runis (1930–98), it became clear that her uncle, the male artist Pan Seken (c. 1890–1984) worked in an environment in which women did most of the painting.20 Going forward by several decades, women of the same family are prominent in the photographs made by Anthony Forge. One image depicts the older sister of Ni Nyoman Runis, Ni Nengah Sabret (Men Soka), as an older woman in spectacles applying the first stages of colour to a pencil sketch on cloth (Figure 2).

Ni Wayan Wally (born 1954) is the most prolific living descendent of the artist Pan Seken and the niece of Ni Nyoman Runis and Ni Nengah Sabret. After her parents separated and her father remarried, Ni Wayan Wally remained in the family compound in the care of an unmarried aunt, Ni Nengah Takir. Ni Wayan Wally described the many women artists amongst her relatives who encouraged her to take up painting as a child. Her accounts of her aunts and other female relatives at work are consistent with the observations made by the female collector Margaret Dunningham, a lecturer in art history and Asian studies at Victoria University in New Zealand, [End Page 83] who visited Kamasan on a regular basis during the 1950s and 1960s. While Dunningham labelled Pan Semari (1922–2000), the son of Pan Seken, as the ‘master’ of contemporary painters, her description of painting activity in this compound actually highlights the women involved in the production and exchange of art.

Figure 3. Ketut Rukmini (Men Rus), 1973 (Australian Museum, photo Anthony Forge).
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Figure 3.

Ketut Rukmini (Men Rus), 1973 (Australian Museum, photo Anthony Forge).

They sit all day in their courtyards, their feet tucked up under them in a womanly, seemly, manner. Their workshop may be a huge bale bed which almost fills the little courtyard. It is like a fourposter. The curtains—beautiful folk art objects—which may be drawn for privacy, are of cotton cloth painted with scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. It is these families that are responsible for the palalintangan or star calendars, which are sold in the Klungkung market.21

As if to further confirm this account, amongst the visual documentation made by Anthony Forge, we find a photograph of Ketut Rukmini (Men Rus), the youngest sister of Pan Seken, with a calendar for sale in 1973 (Figure 3). However, there is one important point in the written account of Margaret Dunningham on which Kamasan artists diverge—they hold that the artist [End Page 84] Pan Semari was not in fact the master painter, but that this title rightly belonged to his wife Ni Nyoman Srengkog, who was the more talented of the pair. The same observation may apply to the artist couple Ni Remi (c. 1900–82) and Pan Putera (I Ketut Rabeg, c. 1915–2011), also photographed by Anthony Forge (Figure 4). Several decades earlier in 1937, Ni Remi was interviewed by anthropologists Jane Belo and Margaret Mead, and Mead also collected several of her works, now in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History.22 This couple often hosted foreign visitors. Yet, despite being active as an artist throughout her life, male anthropologists like Forge were seemingly unaware of her accomplishments and attributed the artistic success of her compound to her husband. With these modified versions of the village art history in mind, the following section looks more closely at the contemporary practice of women artists in Kamasan.

Figure 4. Ni Remi (c. 1900–82) and Pan Putera, 1979 (Australian Museum, photo Anthony Forge).
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Figure 4.

Ni Remi (c. 1900–82) and Pan Putera, 1979 (Australian Museum, photo Anthony Forge).

[End Page 85]

Collaboration and Women as Artists

As I have intimated, in practice the alleged rules and divisions of labour are not always observed, so in addition to the many women who derive a living from colouring paintings, Kamasan is home to several accomplished female artists. This is generally considered a recent phenomenon and the elderly Ni Made Suciarmi (born 1932), is often cited as the first female artist of the village. This recognition relates more to her reputation outside the village, as her work was represented and promoted through the Seniwati Gallery of Art by Women in Ubud. At the time of establishment in 1991, Seniwati was believed to be the first space in Asia dedicated specifically to women artists.23 Ni Made Suciarmi belongs to a lineage of painters of the Pulesari descent (dadia) group, who worked for the ruler of the pre-colonial Balinese state, based in nearby Klungkung.24 Her grandfather was the artist Nyoman Laya (1865–1920), her paternal uncle the artist Mireg, and while her father Ketut Sulaya did not paint, he was an accomplished shadow-puppeteer (dalang).25 Despite growing up amongst artists, Ni Made Suciarmi is emphatic that neither she nor her older sister, Ni Putu Suwitri, were encouraged to paint as children. In hindsight, Ni Made Suciarmi related that her decision to take up painting was a pragmatic one, for she wanted to engage in an activity from which she could derive an income. Here she distinguished painting from the many unremunerated jobs that women undertake in the domestic sphere, citing the preparation of offerings (banten) as particularly onerous and time-consuming.

Ni Wayan Wally also struggles to balance painting with her ritual obligations. She is able to derive some income from preparing offerings, a domestic enterprise largely the domain of female experts (tukang banten).26 Some of these skills are connected to painting; she is one of the few in her extended family able to read and write in Balinese script and understand the workings of the Balinese calendar system. Thus she is able to produce cremation shrouds (kajang), featuring figures and text drawn in black ink on a white cloth, and placed on the body of the deceased. However, in addition to the offerings for which she receives a fee, there are considerable outlays of time for life-cycle ceremonies involving members of her extended family and village temples. Sometimes this work consists of paid labour; however as is the case for most women, it means that Ni Wayan Wally is unable to paint for days or weeks during peak periods of ritual activity.

When she married in 1977, she moved from a vibrant household of painters to a nearby compound of smiths. In terms of her practice, this represented a major change as she was no longer working alongside other painters; consequently her work is the least communally oriented. Although [End Page 86] her husband and other family members assist in minor ways, Ni Wayan Wally does almost everything by herself. In her estimation, there are advantages to this situation as she is free to explore the painting tradition on her own terms. In turn, this means that her paintings are distinct from those of other artists. In particular, she has introduced several innovations in technique. Unlike almost every Kamasan artist, Ni Wayan Wally still prepares her own cloth or canvas, priming it with a rice paste mixture (bubuh), named after the porridge it resembles. An untreated length of cotton cloth is first soaked in a container of rice paste, then removed and wrung out to remove excess liquid. It is stretched over a wooden frame and fastened with nails, put in the sun to dry, then removed from the frame for polishing (nggerus). A cowrie shell (siput gerus) is attached to a bamboo rod hanging from a wooden ceiling beam. The shell is rubbed across the surface of the cloth until it shines. At this stage the cloth is ready for the pencil sketching to begin.

Figure 5. Ni Wayan Wally, 2014 (photo Siobhan Campbell).
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Figure 5.

Ni Wayan Wally, 2014 (photo Siobhan Campbell).

Except for the cloth priming and polishing, which is done outside, Ni Wayan Wally works in an enclosed room. She sits on the floor, leaning over the cloth on the floor in front of her or gathering it up in her lap (Figure 5). The room is not big enough to spread out large cloths, so she works with the cloth folded over in sections. Some artists place the cloth on a low table in [End Page 87] front of them, as can be seen in the portrait of Ni Nyoman Runis, or sit on a chair at a table. Before putting pencil to cloth, Ni Wayan Wally plans the composition (ngedum karang). She refers to a small collection of publications and notebooks that contain sketched annotations of scenes from the stories in her repertoire. A box with roughly drawn figures and captions, describing the names of the figures and what they are doing, represents each scene. The dimensions of the cloth dictate which parts of the narrative will be depicted.

Although she has less interest in creating novel story lines than artists like Mangku Muriati, whose work is described below, Ni Wayan Wally does insert new narrative elements into the corpus of known stories. Her version of Pan and Men Brayut, illustrating events in the life of a commoner family with 18 children is a case in point. It contains the conventional depictions of Men Brayut confined to bed, overwhelmed by her breastfeeding children, while Pan Brayut fetches water for the kitchen. However, in the scenes depicting the marriage of their son Ketut Subaya, Ni Wayan Wally has introduced tourists with cameras around their necks jostling to snap the wedding couple. Girls in bikinis share the waves with fishermen in wooden fishing boats. A trio of government officials dressed in khaki uniform arrive at the wedding ceremony accompanied by a fourth guest in trousers and jacket. All are greeted by a pair of women in Balinese dress who place a garland of flowers round the officials’ necks.

Since Ni Wayan Wally works on an entire painting herself, the pencil outline and ink drawing is executed in significantly less detail than artists working with a group of colourists. Sometimes she sketches only the barest of details with calligraphy pen and ink (mangsi) or a black felt-tip pen, forgoing the pencil outline altogether. Ni Wayan Wally also differs from many artists in that she never uses a ruler to divide up the scenes on a cloth. Instead, she draws straight lines with a steady hand. Ni Wayan Wally favours borders with fluid ornamental floral patterns (patra sari) over ruled borders that resemble picture frames. The Brayut painting, with a combined dragon (naga) and bird (kedis) motif, is a good example of her beautifully executed borders. Although she never uses a ruler, one of her favourite innovations is a compass (jangka). Ni Wayan Wally draws circular disks as scene borders (Figure 6). Her rendering of the “Gods of the Directions” (Nawasanga) is a central disc depicting Siwa on his bull (nandi) (Figure 7). The surrounding gods are in bud-shaped leaves, together creating a stylised eight-petalled lotus (padma). Similarly, her version of the calendar combines the 35-day calendar (palelintangan) with the earthquake calendar (palindon); a central rectangular grid is surrounded by the 12 months in floating circular discs. [End Page 88]

Figure 6. Ni Wayan Wally, Brayut, 2009 (Australian Museum collection 94637, photo Emma Furno).
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Figure 6.

Ni Wayan Wally, Brayut, 2009 (Australian Museum collection 94637, photo Emma Furno).

Ni Wayan Wally completes her work by placing small white dots on hair and clothing (maletik) with white acrylic paint. The dots are likened to precious stones (soca), which some artists highlight in red (nyocain). This is an optional element of decoration, the same as the gold leaf (prada) once applied to the highest-quality cloths. Like gold leaf, the white dots are delicate and fall off the surface of the cloth if not handled with care. In the Brayut painting (Figure 6), the dots are sparse, mainly on the earrings and armbands of the male and female figures. They are also on the dragon within the border. However, they are densely placed in the Nawasanga. Although many Kamasan artists do not do this, Ni Wayan Wally described this process as [End Page 89]

Figure 7. Ni Wayan Wally, Garuda Nawasanga, 2010 (Australian Museum collection 94636, photo Emma Furno).
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Figure 7.

Ni Wayan Wally, Garuda Nawasanga, 2010 (Australian Museum collection 94636, photo Emma Furno).

crucial to any properly executed painting. She said the purpose of the dots was to build up the painting—to bring it to life (ngurip) by creating an additional dimension of layering. By way of comparison, Ni Made Suciarmi describes the process of tracing the sketch in black ink (neling) as “creating brilliance” (membangun cahaya). Other artists said that this was achieved earlier in the colouring process, through the gradual application of layers (pulasan) of colour. The point to recognise here is that artists associate the [End Page 90] impact of a painting with the idea of layering, or building up. Such a description makes it clear that a great deal is accomplished during the colouring process, the stages of production usually in the hands of women.

Figure 8. Ni Made Suciarmi, Garuda Nawasanga, 1970s (Australian Museum collection 94631, photo Emma Furno).
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Figure 8.

Ni Made Suciarmi, Garuda Nawasanga, 1970s (Australian Museum collection 94631, photo Emma Furno).

The other point of this comparison is to highlight the existence of different viewpoints amongst women about their working process. Although there are more women working in Kamasan than can be introduced in person here, in the next section I focus on the work of Mangku Muriati (born 1966), [End Page 91] to provide the example of an artist of a different generation whose mode of working differs significantly from her fellow village artists and who perhaps most conspicuously embodies the incorporation of the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern’ art worlds. By providing greater contextualisation for the work of a single artist, my intention is to show how Mangku Muriati engages with artistic innovation in her art-making process, in the material and conceptual sense. This is necessarily preceded by some comments on the cultural and personal background of the artist.

Figure 9. Mangku Muriati, Pura Paibon Pasek Tangkas, 2014 (photo Siobhan Campbell).
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Figure 9.

Mangku Muriati, Pura Paibon Pasek Tangkas, 2014 (photo Siobhan Campbell).

Mangku Muriati: Embodying Incorporation of the ‘Traditional’ and the ‘Modern’ Art Worlds

Mangku Muriati is the daughter of Mangku Mura (1920–99), one of the most successful artists of his generation. Despite being widely collected in Bali, as well as by museum institutions and collectors internationally, Mangku Mura was perceived as an outsider in Kamasan because he was not born into a family of painting descent, a notion that is also applied to his children.27 Not only did Mangku Mura nominate his daughter as his successor (penerus) to take over from him as a painter, he also passed on his role as priest (mangku) [End Page 92] of their clan temple (Figure 9). This was clearly a pivotal resolution. Before he passed away, Mangku Muriati said that her painting lacked spirit, but her father’s passing brought her painting to life; she took on his strokes. Her apprenticeship took place in tandem with formal instruction. Mangku Muriati studied fine art at Udayana University (now part of the Indonesian Institute of Arts) between 1987 and 1993. Going to university was part of a village-wide trend in the 1980s, when many children of accomplished artists were sent to study art at Udayana University, which at that time had a faculty of Fine Art and Design. This became part of the Indonesian Institute of Art (ISI) Denpasar in 2003.

This was the only period in her life where she spent substantial time away from the village. University introduced Mangku Muriati to new ideas about anatomy and proportion. She relates that during compulsory experiments with ‘modern’ styles, her teachers described her work as being too stuck in, literally, ‘nailed to tradition’. Statements to this effect also characterise the manner in which other Kamasan artists differentiate themselves from modern artists. Their style is not a matter of preference for one style over another; it is part of their being.

A large radio dominates a corner of the room Mangku Muriati uses to receive guests and to store paintings. Every day she listens to performances of textual singing and dance-drama or watches televised performances, which are the most important narrative sources for her art. The circulation of Indian serials and films has also resulted in versions of the Indian-derived epics, not traditionally known in Bali, making their way into paintings. Mangku Muriati also recollects the stories performed live in the village during her childhood and as an adolescent, when she belonged to a ritual singing group (wargasari) that performed songs in Kawi for temple ceremonies. All these sources inform the narratives of her paintings, although it is also important to emphasise that the narrative component of a painting is not reducible to a story synopsis. Consummate artists possess the ability to manoeuvre within a corpus of widely known narratives, coming up with new stories or variations on existing ones.

Mangku Muriati describes herself as producing stories unlike any other artist’s in Kamasan. Despite these assertions of originality, innovations of this nature are not considered to subvert the conventions of tradition. Her stories are conceived within the parameters of traditional practice, so while their plots push boundaries, the style (gaya, stil) adheres to certain iconographic proscriptions. Mangku Muriati conceives her work as that of a storyteller, saying that without elucidation of the story, the paintings have no meaning. Furthermore, paintings need to be talked about, a point Mangku Muriati [End Page 93] expounded by adding that, without narration, the paintings are lifeless. This statement reveals that paintings are not inanimate, and that words bring her paintings to life. Mangku Muriati understands that commonly painted narratives such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana took place in the ancient past and that over each generation, the messages are rearticulated so that a story develops new meanings over time. While many artists restrict themselves to key episodes from these stories, in which the formal arrangement of characters and objects within the picture space are easily recognisable, Mangku Muriati pursues new episodes to paint.

Like that of her father, the work of Mangku Muriati is more highly recognised outside of the village than it is within. In 2017 she was the only woman amongst nine finalists in the Titian Art Space Prize, an art gallery in Ubud established in 2016, whose primary function is to “identify extraordinary talents in Balinese visual arts … and to assist these artists to reach their full potential on the local and global stage”.28 Muriati’s work was named Bhinneka Tunggal Ika [Unity in Diversity], the national motto of Indonesia, and depicts 12 couples dressed in regional costumes of the Indonesian archipelago accompanied by several symbols of the nation, including the text of the 1928 Youth Pledge made by Indonesian nationalists, the national flag and emblem, and the mythical Garuda bird.29 This work builds on a number of themes related to Indonesian nationhood that Mangku Muriati has pursued in recent years.

As part of a new body of work for a joint exhibition with fellow Balinese contemporary artist Teja Astawa at the Sudakara Art Space in 2015, Muriati created a new narrative in response to one of the most well-known paintings in modern Indonesian art history, The Capture of Prince Diponegoro by Raden Saleh (1857).30 The painting is one of the most evocative representations of the colonial era, depicting Diponegoro, the 19th-century Javanese religious leader of noble descent who is regarded as a key protagonist in the Indonesian national struggle against Dutch colonial powers. For instance, Indonesian youth of the 1930s, imbued with nationalist sentiment, replaced portraits of the Dutch queen in public places with the image of Diponegoro. Just before Muriati made her version (Figure 10), a major exhibition of works inspired by Diponegoro had taken place at the National Gallery in Jakarta.31

Mangku Muriati’s Penangkapan Pangeran Diponegoro, is instantly recognisable as a reproduction of the canonical The Capture of Prince Diponegoro by Raden Saleh, albeit rendered according to Kamasan conventions. The building in front of which the scene is set is represented as an enclosed Balinese pavilion (bale). In her rendition of the arrest, Diponegoro and his adjutant are dressed in the robes, long loincloth and turban of Islamic leaders. [End Page 94] They are held by white-faced colonial authorities dressed in hats and combat attire with the bulging eyes of rogues. The loyal followers of the prince are arranged in three orderly rows and dressed in Balinese costume. The details of their costumes tell us that they are ordered from higher to lower positions according to rank, with headdresses showcasing protruding Garuda heads, gold neck plates, armbands and shoulder cords—all indicators of noble status—becoming less ornate in the figures of the bottom row. Several of the onlookers are holding their right arms bent backwards and just below their cheeks, a sign that they are grieving. A lone female figure kneels and grasps the left leg of Diponegoro as he is led away, also faithful to the Raden Saleh rendition of the scene.

Figure 10. Mangku Muriati, The Capture of Prince Diponegoro [Penangkapan Pangeran Diponegoro], 2015 (photo Sudakara Art Space).
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Figure 10.

Mangku Muriati, The Capture of Prince Diponegoro [Penangkapan Pangeran Diponegoro], 2015 (photo Sudakara Art Space).

For the same exhibition, Mangku Muriati depicted another painting with a historical theme, this time intentionally highlighting gender roles in the artistic representation of historical events. The Battle of Kusamba [Perang Kusamba] (Figure 11) can be described as being in a revisionist mode as it depicts, or restages, a scene of Balinese resistance to colonial rule by placing a Balinese woman at the centre of the action. The painting illustrates a legendary battle at Kusamba on the East Coast of Bali in May 1849 as the [End Page 95] Dutch attempted to incorporate the island of Bali into the colonial administration of the Netherlands East Indies. The Dutch troops, under General Michiels, had set up camp in the marketplace beside the royal palace, where a branch of the Klungkung royal family resided. In a much celebrated night attack, Balinese forces fatally wounded the general, forcing the Dutch to abandon their planned assault on Klungkung and sign a peace treaty with the Balinese ruler.32

Figure 11. Mangku Muriati, The Battle of Kusamba [Perang Kusamba], 2015 (photo Sudakara Art Space).
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Figure 11.

Mangku Muriati, The Battle of Kusamba [Perang Kusamba], 2015 (photo Sudakara Art Space).

In her painting, Mangku Muriati has depicted the colonial officers in khaki fatigues with a camouflage pattern, white faces and the round eyes usually associated with demons. They are the same as the colonial authorities in the Diponegoro scene described above. Their leader, General Michiels, is in the centre of the action, discernible in his blue uniform. The female figure pointing a musket at him is Dewa Agung Isteri Kanya, who was the joint ruler of Klungkung with Dewa Agung Putra II. Remarkably, she is the only Balinese figure to use a gun against the sword of the general; the other Balinese brandish kris while their Dutch opponents wield a combination of swords and guns. Mangku Muriati said that she chose to depict this event because it is often overshadowed by events 60 years later, when companies of Dutch soldiers did finally succeed in subjugating the Klungkung royal family in [End Page 96] 1908.33 Specifically, Mangku Muriati was concerned to place the female ruler of Klungkung at the centre of events. In doing this Mangku Muriati invests Dewa Agung Isteri with an agency she lacks in most historical narratives, because the ruler is not usually described as being at the scene of the battle.

Mangku Muriati understands all the stories and narratives she explores in her work as having a historical dimension, in the sense that the epics are based on actual historical events and that a story develops new meanings over time. This notion of historical time relates to the way viewers can understand her paintings as depicting a bygone time of kingdoms as well as having a pertinent message for the present day. For instance, although the scenes she depicts from the Mahabharata and Ramayana took place in the ancient past, in the context of transmission over many generations, their messages are always rearticulated; in the wrong hands, their potential to legitimate individuals and groups is even dangerous. In the examples given, Mangku Muriati has used narrative to reframe historical events. Recently, however, her work has also been taken up by contemporary Balinese women artists to promote greater gender equality in Balinese art history and to modify the narrative of Balinese—and Indonesian—art history from which the histories and practices of female artists are largely absent. Editing projects to improve gender imbalance through Wikipedia edit have resulted in her inclusion in Wikipedia pages on Balinese women in the arts.34


While this is one means of correcting the art historical narrative based in and around Southeast Asian visual cultures, there may be broader implications of both gender and local ways of seeing that should contribute to the development of art historical approaches. This follows more general calls for greater engagement with critical theory in scholarship on Southeast Asia, or in the words of Goh Beng-Lan, to “local contributions to building concepts that can better account for historical experiences specific to the region which are at the same time interconnected with larger histories”.35

There is considerable diversity in both life trajectories and in the ways women artists respond to the pictorial conventions of Kamasan. Whether best described as stemming from a sense of modesty or cultural conventions of speaking, women do not state outright that men are not the sole bearers of tradition in this village. However, they do stress their autonomy as artists, with Mangku Muriati developing distinct thematic preoccupations and Ni Wayan Wally going against stylistic conventions. While both adhere to conventional definitions about how painting should proceed, their approaches [End Page 97] are unconventional in terms of subject and technique, yet still operate within the Kamasan art system. Women also refer to their own acumen and their impact on the welfare of the village. When talking about art, women tend to put greater emphasis on paintings as commodities. This is not to assume that women have purely mercenary attitudes towards art, rather it is to understand art production as a means to fulfil financial obligations within the family. Painting enables women to participate in paid labour within the domestic sphere, with the advantage of flexibility to ensure continued participation in paid and unpaid ritual work. Nonetheless, painting is indisputably regarded as a vocation, as is clear from their level of professionalism and knowledge.

Returning briefly to the image of painting in Kamasan by Henri Cartier-Bresson taken in the weeks he spent waiting to capture the intoxicating atmosphere of the capital in newly independent Indonesia. In pronounced contrast to the apparent energy and elation in the celebrated scenes he made of Dutch soldiers leaving the former colony, young guerrillas coming down from the mountains and the portraits of Dutch governors being removed from the official residence,36 the image of Ni Nyoman Runis unassumingly going about her work may be deceptive in that it seems to represent an ordinary or commonplace scene. Yet in this photograph, Cartier-Bresson records an important document of Balinese art history, and his representation of the anonymous painter has transformed into a bigger story about the transmission of painting skills and the trajectories of women in Kamasan. Taken as a record, the photograph contradicts written and oral versions of the art historical narrative, telling us that men are not the sole bearers of artistic tradition. We might then regard this as being in the same spirit as the revolutionary scenes from the capital. [End Page 98]

Siobhan Campbell

Siobhan Campbell completed her PhD at the University of Sydney in 2013 investigating the painting tradition of Kamasan village in Bali and Balinese responses to museum collections. She continued to research collections of Balinese art as a fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) in the Netherlands in 2013 and undertook further fieldwork in Bali with a Postdoctoral Endeavour Fellowship in 2014. Siobhan is currently a lecturer in the Department of Indonesian Studies at Sydney University and is conducting research as part of the ARC Discovery Project ‘Shaping Indonesian Contemporary Art: the role of institutions’.


1. This paper is based in part on a chapter of my PhD thesis, titled “Collecting Balinese Art: The Forge Collection of Balinese paintings at the Australian Museum in Sydney” (University of Sydney, 2013) part of an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Project between the University of Sydney and the Australian Museum. I also received funding for further fieldwork in Bali as an Endeavour Postgraduate Research Fellow in 2014. My research on women in modern Indonesian art has been conducted as a Research Fellow on the ARC Discovery Project “Shaping Indonesian Contemporary Art: The Role of Institutions”, between 2015 and 2018.

2. See Wulan Dirgantoro, Feminisms and Contemporary Art in Indonesia: Defining Experiences; Astri Wright, “Lucia Hartini, Javanese Painter: Against the Grain, towards Herself”, in Studies in Southeast Asian Art, ed. Nora A. Taylor (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program, 2000), pp. 93–121; Heidi Arbuckle, Performing Emiria Sunassa: Reframing the Female Subject in Post/colonial Indonesia, PhD thesis, University of Melbourne, 2011; Yvonne Low, Women Artists: Becoming Professional in Singapore, Malaya and Indonesia, PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 2015; and Matt Cox, The Javanese Self in Portraiture from 1880–1955, PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 2015.

3. Yvonne Low, Women Artists, p. 194, emphasises the disproportionate number of paintings in the Sukarno Collection that “made the female figure both the subject and object of representation” and created the impression of an “erotic Panorama Mesdag”.

4. See, for example, the work of John Clark, including “Modern Art in Southeast Asia” [reprint], in The Japan Foundation Asia Center Art Studies. Volume 3: Shaping the History of Art in Southeast Asia, ed. Furuich Yasuko (Tokyo: The Japan Foundation, 2017), pp. 20–3.

5. Adrian Vickers, ed., Being Modern in Bali: Image and Change (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), p. 30. See also the discussion of defining the traditional in Bali in Raechelle Rubinstein, Beyond the Realm of the Senses; the Balinese Ritual of Kakawin Composition (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2000), p. 3.

6. I conducted field research and resided in Kamasan from July 2010 to April 2011, September–December 2011 and September 2014–January 2015.

7. For more details on Forge and his work with Balinese artists, see Campbell, “Anthony Forge in Bali: The Making of a Museum Collection”, Visual Anthropology 27, 3 (2014): 248–75.

8. Anthony Forge, Balinese Traditional Paintings: A Selection from the Forge Collection of the Australian Museum (Sydney: Australian Museum, 1978).

9. Adrian Vickers, Balinese Art: Paintings and Drawings of Bali 1800–2012 (Singapore: Tuttle, 2012).

10. For examples, refer to Astri Wright, Soul, Spirit, and Mountain: Preoccupations of Contemporary Indonesian Painters (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1991) and Helena Spanjaard, Artists and Their Inspiration: A Guide through Indonesian Art, 1930–2015 (University of Washington Press, 2016).

11. See Adrian Vickers, Bali, a Paradise Created (Rowville, Ringwood: Penguin, 1989).

12. Claire Holt, Art in Indonesia: Continuities and Change (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967), p. 226.

13. See Megan Jennaway, Sisters and Lovers: Women and Desire in Bali (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).

14. Ketut Sudhana Astika, Pola Kehidupan Pelukis Tradisional Di Desa Kamasan Klungkung (Yogyakarta: Proyek Penelitian dan Pengkajian Kebudayaan Nusantara, 1985), p. 10.

15. Anthony Forge, Balinese Traditional Painting, p. 10.

16. For details regarding the photographs of the transfer of independence, see John Bloom, “Henri Cartier-Bresson: Primacy of the Other over Fact”, in Toward Independence: A Century of Indonesia Photographed, ed. Jane Levy Reed (San Francisco: Friends of Photograph, Ansel Adams Center, 1991).

17. Henri Cartier-Bresson, “Bali; Paradis Terrestre, a Trouvé Le Secret Du Bonheur De Vivre”, Point de Vue Images Du Monde (27 April 1950): 4–9. For other images of Bali made in this period, see Cartier Bresson, Les Danses à Bali (Paris: Robert Delpire, 1954).

18. This identification of the narrative is based on my observation; in his notes Cartier-Bresson described it as a scene from the Ramayana.

19. These were made available by the archives of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, Paris: “Bali, December 1949: Sections 556, 557 and 558”. I am grateful to Aude Raimbault of the Foundation for her assistance during my visit to the archives in September 2011.

20. This identification was confirmed in 2010 by one of her seven children, son Nengah Mujana (1956–), who related that Ni Nyoman Runis left the natal compound after her marriage to I Ketut Rengkug, a metalsmith from nearby Gelgel. Her marriage was cut short when her husband was killed in the violence that swept Bali from late 1965; however she later married her brother-in-law and remained in Gelgel until her death.

21. Margaret Mathie Dunningham, An Introduction to Balinese Folk Art (Hamilton Print Works: Waikato Art Museum, 1974).

22. I am grateful to Adrian Vickers for locating the relevant fieldwork notes amongst the Margaret Mead papers held in the Library of Congress, Washington Library: “Jane Belo Field Trip, 1937–38, 1939” [MARGARET MEAD Box N30 Folder 9]. Ni Remi is inconsistently referred to as Wayan Remi by Belo and Ketut, sometimes Made, Remi by Mead.

23. See Astri Wright, “The Seniwati Gallery for Women Artists in Bali”, Art and Asia Pacific 2, 2 (1995): 32–5. Seniwati ceased operating in Ubud in 2012 and initially relocated to the studio of artist Ni Nyoman Sani in Batu Bulan as Seniwati Art Space, then Mother Art Space, but was officially closed in 2016.

24. For more details of the Pulesari painters and royal patronage, see Adrian Vickers, “Commoner Temples, Commoner Painters: The Village Temple and Modern Ideas of Traditional Balinese Painting”, in Popular Art in Asia, the People as Patrons: The Visual Arts, ed. Jim Masselos (Sydney: Centre for Asian Studies, University of Sydney, 1984).

25. See Adrian Vickers, Balinese Art: Paintings and Drawings of Bali 1800–2012 for biographies of key Kamasan artists.

26. Space does not allow a fuller exploration of the sale of artwork and the income generated by women. For further discussion of this, see Campbell, “Temple Art for Sale: Traditional painting in Contemporary Bali”, Indonesia and the Malay World 43 (2015): 126, 226–54.

27. For more details on Mangku Mura and his close relationship with collector Anthony Forge, see Siobhan Campbell, “Craft and the Archive: Museum Collections and Memory in a Balinese Village”, craft + design enquiry 6 (2014): 183–204.

28. See [accessed 31 July 2017].

30. See catalogue A Prince for All Seasons; Diponegoro in the Memory of the Nation from Raden Saleh to the Present [Aku Diponegoro! Sang Pangeran dalam Ingatan Bangsa dari Raden Saleh sampai kini] (Jakarta: Goethe-Institut Indonesien, 2015).

31. See catalogue Eternal Line (Sudakara Art Space, 2015), with essays by Wayan Seriyoga Parta and Siobhan Campbell.

32. Margaret J. Wiener, Visible and Invisible Realms: Power, Magic, and Colonial Conquest in Bali (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 178–81.

33. This is also the subject of a major painting by Mangku Muriati and Mangku Mura, described in Siobhan Campbell, “Bali at War: A Painted Story of Resistance to Colonial Rule”, International Institute of Asian Studies Newsletter 68 (Summer 2014).

35. Goh, Beng-Lan, “Disciplines and Area Studies in the Global Age: Southeast Asian Reflections”, in Decentring & Diversifying Southeast Asian Studies: Perspectives from the Region, ed. Beng-Lan Goh (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2011), p. 2.

36. See John Bloom, “Henri Cartier-Bresson: Primacy of the Other over Fact”.