Bali – behind the scenes

Portrait of a Legong dancer in Bali, 1910-1940

Sandy beaches stretching as far as the eye can see, magnificent temples, rolling rice paddies and the perfect surf. That’s Bali. At least, that’s the accepted image.

The Tropenmuseum’s Bali – Behind the Scenes exhibition ventures beyond the tourist paradise to explore the island’s other faces. Featuring some 250 objects from the museum’s Indonesia collection alongside works by contemporary Balinese artists and the personal testimonies of island residents, the exhibition shows how this paradise is under pressure but also the resilience of local culture.

The creation of paradise
In the 19th century Bali comprised various kingdoms. During the colonial era the Dutch forcibly subjugated these different kingdoms, bringing the entire island under Dutch rule in 1908. In the wake of this painful conquest the Dutch deliberately set out to create the image of Bali as an idyllic, artistic paradise in order to gloss over the harsh and often bloody reality of its subjugation. Art and photography, but also tourist advertising presented Bali as a paradise on earth, depicting scenes of peaceable village life and a thriving local culture. This propaganda was a key driver behind the rise of the tourist industry in the early 20th century.

Cultural interaction
Bali’s landscape and culture attracted not only tourists but also western artists. In Sanur, the German Neuhaus brothers made a living selling Balinese art to tourists. Other western artists, such as Walter Spies of Germany and the Dutchman Rudolf Bonnet, lived for a long time in Ubud during the 1920s and 1930s. Together with local artists who had previously been court painters or woodcarvers for Balinese rulers they created works intended primarily for the tourist market.

I Ktut Rodja, 1936: modern stylized wooden statue of a seated woman. Permanent collection Tropenmuseum

Although Balinese artists developed their own style, prior to the 19th century their work was anonymous. They worked on commission for the island’s various rulers, taking Hinduism as their principal theme. But after 1930 everything changed, when they started selling their art to tourists. Artists developed a highly individual style and their work evolved into an expression of their own ideas and feelings.

Contemporary art
The exhibition’s art gallery features a wide variety of contemporary Balinese art alongside art from the 19th century. The variation illustrates the development of art on Bali and shows the principal themes of the time both then and now, such as Hindu scenes.

Palace treasures from the former kingdoms of Badung, Tabanan and Klungkung tell the story of Dutch colonial rule on the island. Early 20th century posters and photographs trace the way in which the image of Bali as an island idyll of peaceful village life, richly decorative temples and wonderful rice fields was carefully created and curated. Contemporary works of art and videos show the determination and optimism of the Balinese people and their dedication to their culture.

Today Balinese culture is as vibrant as ever. Local artist and activist Made Bayak draws attention to the problems of plastic waste with his ‘plasticology’ art. The Hindu priest Ida Dalem Parama Diksita shows how he seeks to preserve long-standing traditions and rituals. And I Dewa Ayu Putu Evayanti, who works in the tourist industry, talks about how she sees the future of an island where the rice paddies look set to disappear.

BALI – Behind the scenes is on show until February 28, 2021. The Museum is currently closed because of the government measures against COVID-19. See for more information the Tropenmuseum website.

Plasticology painting: The secret Sanghyang dance for Ibu Pertiwi, Made Bayak, 2017

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