Although many travelers visit Bali for its pristine beaches, vibrant nightlife and relaxing spas, those who fail to explore the island nation’s art scene are depriving themselves of a fascinating cultural experience. Balinese art is some of the most distinctive and beautiful in the world, and whether you are interested in creating, viewing or purchasing pieces, you owe it to yourself to devote at least a portion of your holiday in Bali to experiencing the art scene.
Balinese Art: An Overview
With roots dating to the 13th century, Balinese art is largely considered folk art with Hindu-Javanese influences. Art in Bali tends to include religious scenes — usually representations of Hindu gods and goddesses — as well as scenes from nature and village life. Most art serves a specific purpose: Sculpture, for example, is generally done in honor of religious icons, not for decoration. However, there has been a growing interest in painting over the last century, and several schools of painting have become popular, including finger painting. This is not the finger painting of preschoolers, though, but a sophisticated method in which artists create complex works. The most important aspect of Balinese art, though, is that it always serves a purpose. Whether the piece is painted, woven, carved or sculpted, it has an important purpose in Balinese life.
Experiencing Art in Bali
Although much of Balinese art is created by folk artists, often to sell or to use in their own homes for practical purposes, there are several art museums on the island that are worth taking some time to explore. The Puri Lukisan Museum in Ubud is considered to hold the best collection of Balinese painting and is not far from the Seni Neka Museum, a collection of commercial galleries. Fans of modern Balinese art will appreciate the Gunarsa Museum in the Klungkung Regency; the paintings in this museum are modernist interpretations of Hindu life and folklore in Bali.
Buying Art in Bali
Because so many visitors are enthralled with Balinese art and want to bring home a piece to enjoy, there is a healthy market on the island. The best place to purchase a piece of Balinese art is directly from the artist. Ubud is the center of the Balinese art world, and it’s not difficult to find galleries and studios where you can find everything from paintings to sculptures and carvings for sale.
However, as with any city, not all art galleries in Bali are created equally, and it’s not uncommon for unsuspecting tourists to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous artists or gallery owners. Visit the tourist information office in Ubud before you shop to acquire a list of reputable galleries and art sellers; stick to well-established galleries for your one-of-a-kind piece of art.
If you’re planning to purchase a painting, ask the artist or gallery representative about the materials used for the painting. Most Balinese artists use either stretched canvas or calico fabric for their paintings. When you transport your painting home, oftentimes it will be removed from the frame and rolled up for transport, and if it is painted on calico, there is a good chance the painting will tear when it’s re-stretched for a new frame, a problem you won’t have with a canvas painting. To check, look at the back of the painting. If you can see the painting through the back, it was probably painted on calico, and you should proceed with caution.
Of course, not all Balinese art is in the form of a painting. Because so many pieces of art are carved or painted to be used as everyday objects, it’s possible to find a quality piece in one of the local markets or shops that will not be damaged. A smaller, more practical piece is also easier to transport on your flight from Bali. As when you attempt to transport a painting, you may incur additional fees.
Whether you are attracted to a piece of art for its traditional bright colors, for its symbolism or its purpose, a traditional piece of Balinese art is an ideal souvenir of your holiday. Take care when making your purchase, and learn about the purpose of your piece, and it will serve as a lifelong reminder of your unforgettable vacation.
Simone Starling is a graduate student in art history. She recommends booking your trip to Bali in advance for the summer Arts Festival held annually every second Saturday in June to the second Saturday in July.