Understanding Balinese classical paintings is the aim of the collaborative research project involving the Australian Museum and the University of Sydney. In October 2011 Siobhan Campbell, a PhD student, worked with Dr Stan Florek in Bali.
The specific focus of our fieldwork was to explore the role and contribution of female artists to the centuries-old tradition of Balinese paintings. With the financial support of the Gwendoline West Bequest we also purchased several paintings to enrich and expand the significant collection of Balinese paintings held by the Australian Museum.
The classical or Kamasan-style paintings are typically done on cloth in the form of banners, flags and wall-hangings for rituals and ceremonies. They were produced by the finest artists appointed by the royal court in the town of Klungkung. These artists traditionally lived and worked in Kamasan village in Klungkung. Even now, the Kamasan artists with personal or ancestral links to the royal court are considered the most appropriate to produce classical paintings. In the second half of the 20th century several women joined this special group of artists, not as colourists and helpers but artists in their own right. The personal history and work of two women artists Ni Made Suciarmi and Mangku Muriati exemplifies this interesting development.
Ni Made Sucirami, born in 1932, is one of the oldest and most accomplished female artists working in Kamasan style. Her first exhibition was held at the Bali Art Centre in Dempasar in 1975. Suciarmi’s father Ketut Sulaya was a painter, teacher and expert on lontar (palm leaf) inscriptions. In Bali lontars are considered the most important source of knowledge on religion, social customs, literature, law, medicine and the overall substance of cultural tradition. Yet Sucirami was not allowed to learn from her father. Instead she absorbed the wealth of Balinese traditional narratives and characters from her uncle, a puppet master. Through several decades of her artistic career she brought these characters and stories to life in her paintings.
Mangku Muriati, now in her 40s, was encouraged to become an artist by her father, an accomplished Kamasan painter Mangku Mura. As a child she helped her father in colouring his paintings and assisting him in his studio. Nominated as his successor Muriati became an artist and a priestess. Like her father she is not averse to experimentation and search for new stories and their visual expressions. Muriati is a highly talented and creative artist, gaining international recognition. As a priestess she is not only an interpreter but also a bearer of Balinese spiritual tradition.
The small sample of paintings from these two, and a five other, women artists will strongly complement the Museum’s collection of Balinese classical paintings, which now totals around 190. These paintings reflect the last few decades of social and cultural change as well as the robust vitality of classical painting tradition in Bali.