Anthony Forge: Research in Bali, Indonesia
How does art serve social hierarchy?
Anthony Forge went to Bali in October 1972 with the intention of investigating ‘Symbolic Systems in the Maintenance of Hierarchy’. After almost a year in the field, he gathered a large amount of data, including 104 of the paintings, now kept in the Australian Museum. This collection of Balinese paintings is often called the Forge Collection. It was later enlarged by Forge’s collecting trip in 1979 and the subsequent bequests of his private collection in the 1990s.
Bali represented the opportunity to examine art in a ‘stratified’ society. Forge argued that most previous research in Bali had drawn on the religious and social ideas of the aristocratic classes, while the oral traditions of the Sudra Balinese, who constituted about 95% of the population, had scarcely been recorded.
Forge’s investigation was focussed on the ritual and traditions of the village of Kamasan, the major centre for the production of classical paintings. His research involved a great deal of photography, study of the paintings and taped discussions with artists, temple priests, experts in various life cycle rituals and traditional healers. Drawing on this extensive body of evidence, Forge asserted that the Sudra Balinese accepted the Hinduised aristocracy, while sometimes mocking them in symbolic terms. He argued that this covert questioning of the established hierarchy contrasted with overt behaviour in Bali, in which elaborate forms of respect were virtually universal. One of the Tantri stories about the High Priest and Bull illustrates this assertion (see Tantri: the Story of the High Priest and Bull, Balinese paintings E74211 and E74253).
The study of the Kamasan paintings was an important part of Forge’s research and he obtained the assistance of several Kamasan artists, including Mangku Mura, Pan Seken and Nyoman Mandra. Forge’s primary informant was Mangku Mura and most of the commissioned artworks were produced by him and his family. Forge spent many evenings talking to and recording Mangku Mura’s explanations of the narratives and iconographic features of his paintings. Forge also enjoyed searching for old paintings and other antiques. He frequented the antique shops which lined the main street of Klungkung, now known as Semarapura, and befriended several of the local antique dealers. Once he and his family had established themselves in a house in Kamasan village and it became known that he was interested in ‘old things’, Forge often found potential sellers waiting outside his front door to offer their paintings and artefacts for sale.
While in Bali, Forge was offered a position as Professor of Anthropology at the Australian National University in Canberra. He took this position in 1974 and remained associated with the University until his death in 1991. Forge returned to Bali in 1977 to produce a film about Balinese culture for the BBC series Face Values, which famously involved landing a helicopter in a field in the middle of Kamasan village. In 1979 he spent a few months in Bali, coinciding with the Eka Dasa Rudra ceremonies at Besakih Temple, held once in a hundred years. During this period he conducted brief investigations with Balinese artists in other parts of Bali, including Ubud and Batuan. He also assembled his second, smaller collection of paintings for the Australian Museum. Many of these paintings are classical works, sourced from other centres of traditional painting outside Kamasan, including the Tabanan and Gianyar districts. He also commissioned some new paintings from Kamasan artists.
In May – July 1978 the Australian Museum held an exhibition of 60 Balinese paintings from the Forge Collection and he wrote the catalogue Balinese Traditional Paintings, which remains one of the most thorough references on Balinese classical paintings to date.
Forge, A. (1978). A Village in Bali. Face Values: Some Anthropological Themes. A. Sutherland; London, British Broadcasting Corporation.
Forge, A. (1978). Balinese traditional paintings: a selection from the Forge Collection of the Australian Museum, Sydney. Sydney, Australian Museum.
Dr Stan Florek , Collection Officer