Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Bali, Art, Ritual, Performance At the Asian Art Museum

Bali, Art, Ritual, Performance which opened last Friday at the Asian Art Museum is an intelligent, gorgeous and vibrant show of a richly textured, religious and seductive culture. A tiny island in the Indonesian archipelago, Bali reverberates in the world's imagination and is home to one of the most vibrant centers of visual and performing arts in the world. 

But until now there has never been an in-depth examination in the United States of Balinese artistic traditions.There are over 130 objects, some the finest of their kind, including sculpture, paintings, and ritual objects, masks and costumes, photographs and much more.

"Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance introduces visitors to a culture that has long been at the crossroads of many civilizations," states Dr. Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum. "It teaches visitors about Balinese history, religious beliefs and traditions, and artistic practice. Most importantly, it highlights ways in which the Balinese people integrate artworks, ritual, and performance in their daily activities. It poses questions about cultural authenticity, adaptation, and persistence. And it encourages a new evaluation of perishable materials used in ritual artistic practice."

For the Balinese, whose religion is a mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism, ancestral spirits and animist tradition, the world is imbued with spirituality. Although the gods and goddesses live on the sacred volcanic mountain tops, they come down to visit their temples whenever there is a ceremony - and there are hundreds each the year. 

The rest of Indonesia has been converted to Islam, but Bali has remained staunchly true to the original and oldest religions of the region, a religion whose practices infuse their lives with a dignity, a visual richness and a deep spirituality. Art, ritual and performance are not divided into separate categories but intermingle in the island's culture.

Rice is the staple food of the island, grown through back breaking labor in the terraced fields that cover the island. Red, black, white and yellow are the four sacred colors in Bali, each representing a particular manifestation of God. The exhibit is full of images of Dewi Sri, the goddess who gave humans the gift of rice. She is not only a rice goddess but in a wider sense, "a deity of fertility, prosperity, wealth and beauty." (catalog, p. 143). The day's rhythm, the pace of the year is ruled by the rice harvest, and watched over by the gods and goddesses (who are represented in all their splendor in the exhibit).

 Decorated Palanquin.

Priests and Princes: The Dutch didn't conquer Bali until 1908, partially because the island didn't seem to have the same riches as the other spice islands. Furthermore, the Balinese were known to be ferocious fighters. But other European powers were casting covetous looks at the island and the Dutch moved in to prevent another Western power from colonizing the place. Although the Dutch conquest was criticized by their press, the Dutch government of the time moved to annex the country - claiming that they were protecting an Arcadian paradise.

The courts were also patrons of the arts and many of the richly decorated and intricate artworks in this section are from those small kingdoms. The exhibit is full of jewelry, intricate woven textiles, decorated chests and a couple of palanquins which I can imagine myself riding in, waving to my (no doubt) grateful subjects. (all images courtesy of the Asian Art Museum). 
For a clear-eyed look at the cruelty, cynicism, and destructive naivete of the Dutch in Indonesia in the 19th century, see if you can find the movie "Max Havelaar." Let's just say that all does not end well.
More to come....The West discovers "Paradise"


A Cuban In London said...

Cor, I loved this post. It wasn't just the promotion for it, but also the historical, cultural and religious background you provided. Interesting to read that fact about Bali being an Islam-free area. I always thought otherwise. Thanks for such an informative and beautiful post.

Greetings from London.

namastenancy said...

I always love your comments on my blog; you get right to the core of what I am trying to say. I have a couple more posts planned on Bali because there is too much to cover in one post.