Ni Made Suciarmi, born in 1932, is one of the oldest (now over 80) female artists working in Kamasan style. She began painting in the early 1940s and went on to become the most prominent female artist of Kamasan tradition, and she is fully aware of this accomplishment. The sign at her gallery-studio in Kamasan proudly pronounces her name and gender: ‘Kamasan Style Art by Woman’. It was a tradition that specified women’s role in Balinese society and not a particular rule preventing them from becoming painters. Although women worked as colourists in the families of artists for generations, Suciarmi say of her childhood “at that time men painted and women wove cloth. I didn’t like weaving”.
Suciarmi’s father, Ketut Sulaya, was a painter, teacher and expert on lontar (palm leaf) inscriptions. Lontars are the most important sources of knowledge on religion, literature, law, medicine, social customs, and the overall pool of tradition. She wanted to, but was discouraged from learning from her father. Instead she learned about the wealth of Balinese tradition and the vast number of narratives and characters from her uncle, a puppet master. It was a lucky coincidence since the Kamasan paintings are closely related to wayang kulit – a puppet theatre, sharing its visual style, protagonists and stories.
As a child Suciarmi loved watching painters at work and used to draw on the ground with a coconut leaf stem. When she was 9, her skills were recognized by a local painting teacher. “When he saw one of my first sketches of Arjuna – says Suciarmi - he told my parents: she has a good hand and a good eye. This girl must become a painter.”
Her first exhibition was held at the Bali Art Centre in Denpasar in 1975. At that time, there were only a few female painters in Bali and her work attracted significant attention. Eventually she attained a commercial success that allowed her to travel abroad; she has exhibited her paintings in galleries in the United States, Canada, Germany, Australia, and Singapore. She has produced paintings, banners, flags and wall hangings for a various ritual use in the temples as well as work to embellish private residences and public spaces.
Although her work was admired by visitors to the village of Kamasan, and by the temple congregations that were often the recipients of her paintings, her talent was usually ignored by the local art critics and the media. One of the admirers of Suciarmi’s work was Mary Northmore MBE, a former Hong Kong art teacher and widow of Indonesian artist Abdul Aziz. With the intention to providing Suciarmi, and other Balinese women artists, better opportunity for exhibitions, development and marketing, she established, in the 1991, a women’s Seniwati Art Gallery in Ubud. The gallery is dedicated to the training and promotion of female artists who live and work in Bali.
Through several decades of her artistic career, Suciarmi painted classical Balinese stories and characters with her elegant style. She was as good, and often better, than many male artists. She demonstrated that there is a space for women artists in Kamasan paintings and cleared a path for aspiring female artists. Suciarmi will be probably remembered mostly as the girl who refused a loom and took up the bamboo brush that was, at the time, meant only for boys.