Living Traditions

BY SIOBHAN CAMPBELL
Nov 20, 2011

A Balinese artist and temple priest builds on her father’s legacy.

Muriati characterises her work prior to the death of her father and the purification ceremony enabling her to serve as temple priest as passive and lacking soul. But she says that the departure of Mangku Mura allowed his character to enter her and bring her work to life. She now likens the role of artist to that of a dalang or puppeteer, who must have an extensive knowledge of characters and stories. Narratives like those drawn from the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics reveal that even the best characters have minor flaws and Muriati believes that Indonesian leaders could take lessons from them. One of her paintings alludes to the collapse of the New Order government stemming from the greed of the Suharto children, which heralded a time of chaos, the fourth and final period in the cycle of the cosmos according to Hindu scripture.

In Muriati’s view, the ongoing natural and man-made disasters in Indonesia are evidence of the negative effect of unchecked emotion and undesirable human qualities such as dishonesty and lack of respect for leadership. The dangers posed by these qualities were foretold in the epics, and Muriati believes that they are now being manifested in Indonesian life. The most devastating of these disasters for the Balinese were the bombings of 2002 and 2005, and she is convinced these events were a sign that the Balinese must reflect on their own shortcomings in fulfilling their religious obligations. Giving expression to this conviction, several of her recent paintings explore the theme of purification or sudamala, including one which relates how the Goddess Uma is transformed into the demon goddess Durga after inadvertently consuming human blood. Another recent work was prompted by mounting evidence of impurity in the natural environment. This painting uses the story of the rice goddess, Dewi Sri, to highlight the vital role of snakes and birds in the ecosystem and to voice Muriati’s concerns about the local environment. Talking about this painting allows her to deplore the loss of farming land to villa and hotel development and major erosion along the coastline, particularly at the site of several important temples.

Muriati’s paintings update the traditional relationship between Kamasan artists and the world around them

Just as her work as a temple priest carries forward ancient traditions while reversing the gender hierarchy attached to the role, these examples of Muriati’s paintings update the traditional relationship between Kamasan artists and the world around them. In pre-colonial Bali, Kamasan artists served the royal court in Klungkung, seat of the highest royal authority in Bali, located two kilometres to the north of the village. Artists served the ruler by producing paintings for use within royal palaces and temples and were granted agricultural land in return. Today, works by Kamasan artists remain on the ceilings of two pavilions which were restored after the Dutch attack on the Klungkung palace in 1908. Many of the paintings from this time can be read as statements about the relationships between ruler and subjects, as the commoner artists were able to utilise well known scenes and characters from the epics to make veiled references to the foibles of their aristocratic rulers.

1184 Muriati and her painting of the Goddess Uma. Photo: Siobhan CampbellPolitics and painting

In Bali today, Kamasan paintings continue to be sought by those in power. Many Balinese outside Kamasan are not familiar with the painted narratives and rely on the artists they commission to suggest an appropriate story.  Large paintings adorn the walls of government buildings throughout the province, including those of the Regional Representative Council in Denpasar. Made Mangku Pastika, the Governor of Bali recently commissioned a prominent Kamasan artist to produce a major work for his home. Sometimes, it is not just the paintings themselves that are sought out by members of the ruling elite. In the 2008 local government elections, a candidate with links to the royal family approached Muriati and asked her to produce a banner in silk cloth instead of the cotton normally used by Kamasan artists. Normally, a banner like this would be produced in a pair, and hung within a temple compound, but this one was to be used as part of the candidate’s election campaign. It was to have a palace motto painted on it and according to Muriati, he planned to pray before it in an act of worship designed to enhance his political chances.

Although she privately questioned the candidate’s attempt to play up his connections with the royal house to boost his chances of election, Muriati completed the commission. When it came to the vote, he lost out to the current office holder, Wayan Candra, who is aligned to the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), something that she quietly applauded. All over Bali, the PDIP and its leader Megawati remain extremely popular, and Muriati is not reluctant about demonstrating her own allegiance to the party and its leader. When she is not dressed in white to officiate at the temple, she frequently appears in a PDIP t-shirt, knowing that her father, a great admirer of Megawati, would approve.

Like her father before her, Muriati is now thinking about who will succeed her and carry on her father’s work. Not only does she have to consider the future leadership of the clan temple but she must also ask herself who among her many nieces and nephews is going to continue the painting tradition. With the cost of a university education seemingly beyond her means, she isn’t confident that any of them will be able to follow her path of academic training. In the meantime, there is plenty of time for the forty-four year old to pursue new stories on cloth from a backlog of ideas, and to enthuse those around her in this exploration of a truly rich cultural heritage.

Siobhan Campbell is a PhD student in the Department of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney.

This article was first published in Inside Indonesia.