Visible Trail – Bali

BALI
A Legacy

“Men wander within my body, their senses are
overwhelmed by me…
They move not according to their own will,
but they are moved by me.”

— Mahabharata, Vana Prana (CIXXXIV)

 

True art inspires artists, but meeting “art alive” may change a man. This is what happened to Chang Fee Ming in Bali. Seeing Lee Man Fong’s beautiful images of the island, he decided that he too, had to visit Bali. At first, when he arrived in 1985 in the village of Ubud, he received the shock of the sights. The vegetation, all nuances of emerald and jade strewn with white and red blossoms, the arranged gardens around the temples and houses…Suddenly, the scenery was shrouded in heavy curtains of rain. Dogs barked mournfully. Then the rain stopped and the beauty was given back. “I almost went crazy,” said Fee Ming. “I painted everyday.”

Paradise Interrupted

The gardens were the openings for the magnificence of nature’s performance in Bali— a performance in which the Balinese people played an essential part. Sunsets and sunrises were as enchanting as in Terengganu, but lasted longer. The incandescent light fell more obliquely on the mirror of the padi fields, in the valleys and on the slopes of the half asleep volcanoes. A latecomer to the “island blessed by the Gods”, Fee Ming knew that the paradise had been rather intermittent. Bali had not been spared the tragedies of an unstable geographic position. The last stretch of land west of the “Wallace Line”, at the edge of tectonic plates, is often the victim of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. It had also repeatedly received the culture and religion of Java, from the 7th century Sailendra Buddhism of Borobudur fame to Hinduism with its many divinities. In the 16th century, Islam?overtook Java and the island of Bali became the last refuge of the Javanese Hindu king and of his numerous retinues of princes, priests and artists.


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Tide of Man
, 1990, 56X76 cm
Collection of Mr. Tim Savage, NSW, Australia

Balinese people, organized in banjars (communal villages) based on a culture of rice, believe in good and evil spirits, which are forces of nature and are joined in due time by the souls of the deceased. Nevertheless, they absorbed a Javanese Hindu caste system and dharma laws. In the middle of the 19th century, the Dutch came. Later, in 1906, the elderly King of Denpasar, the largest town on the island, sensed that the foreigners repres-ented the end of the old ways. Dressed in all his regalia, he led a suicidal puputan (fight to the death) assault against the stupefied Dutch soldiers. During the events of 1965, which shook all of Indonesia, around a hundred thousand “communist partisans” were killed. And, just before, in 1963, the sacred Mount Agung had erupted, engulfing villages in its lava.


When disasters occur, the Gods have to be appeased. Prayers and sacrifices are offered. From divine nature comes the disaster and from it the repairs and the solace. Rice fields will be green again and trees will again produce mangoes, papayas, limes and coconuts in abundance. The island becomes again a vast temple. Offerings are made everywhere. “They are placed on the hills, in the caves, even in the middle of the road”, said Fee Ming. To Fee Ming these offerings are “real works of art”. They gave him the opportunity to further study contrasting effects of light and shadow, as the young palms take the rays of the morning sun (Offering I, 1993, page 79); to follow with his brushes the details of a basket, the gray transparency of rice cakes and the grainy peel of a citrus (Offering II, 1996, page 86). They are cooked in decorative rice dough figures (Prayer for My Beloved, 1999, page 95) or carried as future picnic on a pilgrimage. They are offered in high places to benevolent divinities, on lower grounds for evil ones. The Gods receive the sari—the essence—of the offerings that is carried to them by the smoke of incense (Blessing II, 1998, page 87). Then, after artistic-minded onlookers may have feasted on the fragrance and the beauty, everyone but the Brahmins, will then feast on the food. In 1989, he was, together with Philippine artist J. Elizalde Navarro, assisting at a cremation ceremony when he met the manager of the Bamboo Gallery in Ubud. Having to leave the next day, Fee Ming left a few of his postcards of Terengganu as a departure visiting card. In return, he later received an invitation to come and paint in Ubud as a resident artist. From then on, Bali would be a second home for him. Living there for periods from two to four months every year helped Fee Ming to go beyond the sights into the meaning of what he saw.


 Mentors

Fee Ming’s neighbour in Ubud was Ida Bagus Made Poleng. The legendary Balinese artist was then approaching eighty years old.?Dressed in a sarong, the longhaired Brahmin sat on the floor of a simple shed, workingat his canvas set on a straight traditional easel. Although high prices were offered, Ida Bagus Made did not want to sell his paintings anymore. Fee Ming admired Ida Bagus Made’s “uncompromising attitude, his integrity and his way of life”. Ida Bagus Made had been a student of Rudolf Bonnet. The Dutch artist had, before the Second World War, helped many Balinese artists, to move beyond mythological subjects. Ida Bagus Made used ink and powder pigments for soft nuance drawings full of spiralling movements in a classical vein.

Fee Ming’s and Ida Bagus Made hardly discussed matters of technique or painting.

They talked about the spirit of Bali and about the religious perception of life, how art is but an aspect of life, as sacred as life. The elder artist spoke at length and very clearly. “He made his thoughts very easy to follow,” recalls Fee Ming. “Then, one day, he accepted to pose with me for a photograph. He took off his shirt saying, “This is the Balinese way”. I took off mine too, imitating, I believed, his proud stance. Now, when I look at that photo, I smile at my presumption!”

Fee Ming’s had always been self-conscious about being, as he says a “commercial artist”, meaning that he could live from his work. “I do appreciate money,” he says, “because it gives me the freedom to paint.” Yet he does not want to sacrifice his artistic endeavours to expectations from buyers. Ida Bagus Made brushed away both artistic scruples and financial preoccupations. “Do not seek fame, and fame will come to you,” he said.

During those years, Fee Ming was surprised that the senior artist did not complete many paintings. He kept retouching the dance of a nymph or the jump of a deer. Was it because of old age? Or was it that, like the old King of Denpasar, sensing the imminent disappearance of his world, he refused to cope with the artistic powers of the day? Still, Ida Bagus Made retained a young man’s enthusiasm. “Yesterday,” he told Fee Ming, “I listened to some gamelan. The music was so pure. It was circling in the air, travelling away and back again. I was so inspired, I had to return home quickly and put it in my painting.”


J. Elizalde Navarro, Fee Ming’s other mentor on the island, was keen on giving him technical advice and encouragement. He particularly appreciated the wet brush watercolours and, most of all, the superb command of the light that had become one of Fee Ming’s prominent features. After years of struggle, Navarro had sometimes lived in voluntary exile during the Marcos years, he had become a respected figure in the international art scene. He enjoyed being back in the Philippines and could not remain for long periods in Ubud. But Navarro and Fee Ming continued to meet from time to time and exchanged letters. In one of them, Navarro tells the younger artist, “You must remain the way you are. We are a special kind of people and money will not change your real self or fame, which you are beginning to have. Remember, it is our artistic integrity which is very important to us. Without it we are nothing!”

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Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia, 2000
Photograph by Djaja Tjandra Kirana

In Bali, Fee Ming enjoyed the continual support of his gallery owner. His paintings were exposed to the appreciation of collectors from New York, Tokyo and Paris, for example. He could meet other artists. then,” he said, “that there is no “I understood need for a justification to be an artist.in the villages and their ” He found also, atmosphere so familiar to him, many features from traditional Chinese lore. There were entrances, flanked with stone guardians, that were screened “because devils do not know how to make turnsthe lion dances and ”, barong performances reminiscent of every Galungan Ancestral Celebrations, ancestors were invited for a ten-day “holiday on Earth”.


Costumes

It is in Ubud, too, that Fee Ming benefited from the warm company of “his Balinese family”—whom he stayed with and who had adopted him. He observed their everyday life and participated in their ceremonies. “Before the Nyepi—the Balinese day of silence, we chased away all the evil spirits, following the mother of the household, knocking on all kinds of pots and pans to make a lot of noise,” recalls Fee Ming. Painting the festivals and the ceremonies in Bali, Fee Ming paints the physical appearance as well as the customs of the Balinese. In Morning Majesty, 1996 (page 91), focus is on the lace kebaya blouse and the golden embroidery of a sash. However, the eye also registers the strong and graceful limbs and the silky shine of the skin. In Pilgrimage to Sakenan I and II, 1993 (page 80 and 81), the firm legs of the women are exposed—a rare sight in Asia—and together with the many colours of their dress, are reflected in the broken mirror of the waves. Two paintings are similar in colour range and subject—groups of women. One is a picture of elegant restraint, the other an image of abandon. In Dappled Splendour, 1996 (page 84) Bali Aga women are praying, holding flowers and throwing them on the mat in front of them. A harmony of subdued violets, purples and dark pinks is barely disrupted by the green of palm leaves and the patterns on the sarongs. The flowing composition, a semi-circle of kneeling figures under the almost nocturnal shade, confers a soft unity to the atmosphere. There is a feeling of peace and dignity suitable to the aristocratic group.


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The Gifted One, 1991, 76 x 56 cm
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Rai Arya, Bali, Indonesia

My Fair Ladies, 1996 (page 89), represents women too, but perhaps from their dress and postures they are padi farmers. They are resting during the annual “cleansing of the divinities”. The picture plane is charged with electricity. It is crossed from left to right by the ascending diagonals of large batik patterns on the sarongs, with strong rebellious lines above the bronze-coloured legs, as if a gust of wind was passing, foreboding a tempest. There is a swirling effect in the cloth like in the robes of Chinese divinities. It would be a romantic painting, if it were not for the incongruous appearance of a plastic-looking pinkish-white pair of sandals. Fee Ming likes to focus on unconventional details that transgress the accepted rules of aesthetic “good taste”. It is a tendency that in fact often reinforces the impact of his works. After all, the “My Fair Ladies” deserve a break. It is important to know that they are used to going barefoot, and prefer it, when given theopportunity.


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Invitation to the Gods, 1993, 56 x 76 cm
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Steve Sinclair, USA

In Bali, Fee Ming does not paint sweet legong dancers or young teruna bachelors with hibiscus on the ears. He continues to explore feet, water, and most of all, textiles. But he makes his themes tell, each time, much more than it seems at first. In Never to Be Forgotten, 1997 (page 85), the ceremonial filing of the teeth before a marriage, is evoked, Fee Ming’s way, without the event itself being shown. One man wearing yellow and green, and several women in multi-coloured sarongs are seen from the back, standing and blocking the view. The costumes alone demonstrate the importance of the ceremony for the participants. Carefully reproducing, as is his custom, the beautiful arabesques made from gold leaves on the kain prada cloth worn by the celebrants and the delicate orange of their sash, Fee Ming shows how, for the Balinese, the world beyond is “here and now”. The living spirit is everywhere amongst them. It is as if woven into the splendid costumes that are kept carefully in chests when not in use, and when worn, become natural integral parts of the religious celebration.


Trance

Close-up focus on a maze of colours and forms, peripheral clues and suggestive backdrops evoke the proximity of other planes of reality. Fee Ming invites the viewer to enter into an essential part of the Balinese universe: the world of dance and theatre. He pictures this world in four paintings, one a diptych in bright hues of copper and red, and the others in dark colours, yet inhabited by an inner fire. The dark greens and deep blues of these paintings are strewn with yellow flames. Slivers of white glitter like eyes of demons glowing in the night. The Malays say, when such an impression is created, the painting is berhantu—it has a life of its own.

In the Hindu Balinese pantheon, Shiva is the God whose cosmic dance generates the universe. For the Balinese, dancing is a celebration of creative energy. To dance is to pray, to re-enact, and to participate in the Gods’ sacred activities. Besides learning repeatedly steps and stories until they “go into their hearts”, the dancer undergoes an esoteric training. Before each celebration, they meditate on sacred formulas. They are then able to enter into a trance, dance for hours, walk on charcoal or hypnotize the spectators. Their performance transports them into a different dimension. Tirelessly, the scales of the gamelan fill the air with their own measure of time.

Pelangi, 1996 (pages 82-83) freezes the action at that moment when a group of dancers is about to enter the scene. A zoom effect flattens distances. Young bodies are seen pressed together as in a temple carving. In the second panel, a perspective opens a space where, for the celebrants, acting will be the?same as living. In Dance for Medusa, 1998 (page 90), it could be the same group, but the light has gone and they have stepped into a trance. They dance in front of a fanged stone guardian at the door of a temple where demons have suddenly appeared, rejoicing madly in the background. In another diptych, there are kings with smooth skins, one with a fierce moustache, a character in blue—perhaps a Monkey God ready to help Laksamana, one of the heroes of the Ramayana. These masks, infused with a life of their own, are really talking to each other.


Somehow, sometime, Fee Ming has come to shared the Balinese “trance”. In Myanmar, the meticulous rendering of matter had already a contemplative quality. In Bali, Fee Ming could not remain detached while living amongst the Balinese. He has shared their way of life and their food, entered their temples, saw their sacred carvings and their no less sacred landscapes; drawing everything, line after line, sketchbook after sketchbook. With a psychic’s sensitivity, he has felt and captured the invisible behind the visible. This confers to paintings like On My Mind, 1999 (page 94)—where a young actor—a mask on his head, prepares to perform, a power of fascination beyond the pure decorative beauty.

Offerings

Sadly, Fee Ming’s dearest mentors, Ida Bagus Made Poleng and J. Elizalde Navarro both passed away in 1999. Both had lived according to their principles and had been great artists. The old Brahmin, sitting day after day in front of his easel, working, but not producing paintings anymore, showed that painting, like dancing or playing music, is worshipping. He also showed that, when the hand is reluctant to paint, an artist can pass the spirit to other artists. Fee Ming’s magnificent images of the island are the fruit of the legacy, they are an artist’s Balinese offerings.