I didn’t get a lot of sympathy when I recently told people I was going on a business trip to Bali. After all, Bali on business didn’t sound like such a bad gig—I might have to work but what could be wrong with a trip to paradise?
But my schedule was packed with appointments with the Bali-based artists we work with, and I also had plans to meet some new ones, along with a few gallery owners. It’s my general modus operandi in any city I visit, but it was tougher in Bali than other places because everyone around me was partying, surfing and tanning.
Finding and meeting artists in Bali isn’t all that easy to do. There are language differences of course, and getting to an artist’s studio is like a treasure hunt. There are no street names and you meet people at landmarks. You don’t find the best artists in the Yellow Pages or on the shopping streets in Ubud or Kuta. Most live far out of town and it can take more than an hour to get there. (I never realized Bali was so big.)Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
I stayed in Ubud, which is known as the centre of the art community in Bali, but I skipped the hundreds (I’m not exaggerating) of shops selling art and paintings—most of the ‘art’ looked mass-produced on an assembly line. I swear I saw the same style abstract works in just about every retail shop I passed. In the words of one of our clients, these are the paintings you find in chain interior goods shops (such as Pier 1 Imports and Bed, Bath and Beyond in the United States).
Areas like Key West, Laguna Beach, Provincetown and Bali are known as ‘artist’ areas, but it’s rare to find works on the main street in Bali that will strike any emotional chord with you. These are mostly works for filling extra space on your walls.
There are two excellent galleries, but they’re a bit off the main shopping streets. The Tony Raka Gallery in Ubud and Kendra Gallery in Seminyak are not to be missed and I’ll write more about them both soon.
Luckily I also had a list of artists and their contact details. They live in Bali, but mostly show in Singapore, Indonesia and Europe. First, I went to meet Nenga Sujenah, one of my must-see artists. His friend told me to meet him near the mental hospital close to his house.
We followed Nenga Sujenah’s car through the back roads and rice fields,-some of which are owned by his family, to an area where he has his large studio and a comfortable home.
What I like about these visits to artists’ studios is that I get a chance to learn more about the life of the artists and see more of their works. Nenga Sujenah’s works have been very popular with our clients. They have a rich texture and the imagery is peaceful, soft and almost cuddly. The themes are love, peace and meditation. While he speaks only a bit of English, we’ve managed to correspond by email with the help of his friends and one of them joined up with us this time as well to help with translation.
Nenga Sujenah went to the top art school in Indonesia, the Indonesian Institute of the Arts in Jogjakarta, and planned to stay there with its very large community of artists. But when the tsunami hit Bali in 2004, he returned home to help his family and donated the proceeds from many of his artworks to people who lost their homes and livelihood. He also embarked on a journey of self-reflection and meditation.
The shapes that he uses in his art are soft and round, and although his works are figurative, there’s an abstract quality to them as well. His colours are not what you’d expect for the peaceful themes in his work. He uses a lot of black, red and gold—very strong colours—but the effect is very calming because of the shapes and the empty space on the canvases.
Sujenah showed me catalogues of prior shows he’s had in Bali, Jakarta and Singapore. These were one-man shows where the response to his works was very positive.
I like the materials that he uses too. Sometimes he uses white-out together with acrylic paint on the canvas. The works almost appear to have the texture of stone or wood, and I wasn’t surprised when I learned that his grandfather was a stone carver in Bali.
I picked up two small paintings of elephants—one white, one black. The artist had sent me images by email and I’d chosen them beforehand. When he showed them to me, it was evident everyone in his studio loves them, including the artist himself, and I’m sure they’ll be popular when I show them in our gallery. In these works, he shows his playful nature and his love and respect for nature. As always, the colour choices are interesting—black, white, orange, yellow, red—but the combinations work. The texture too is complex. It’s not flat but has ridges and looks porous in some places and I love the feel. We all spent some time drinking tea, talking about art and his work and his family.
It was a peaceful relaxing time, much like the works themselves. After we finished our drinks, we headed off to the studio of another artist on my list: Ida Bagus Putu Purwa, whom I will write about next week.