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Asian Art Museum Presents First Large-Scale U.S. Exhibition of Balinese Art
Tanah Bali, approx. 1930–1937. By Miguel Covarrubias (Mexican, 1904–1957). Gouache on paper. H: 14 in; W: 21 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- A tiny island in the Indonesian archipelago, Bali reverberates in the world's imagination. A globally recognized destination in Southeast Asia, the island is home to one of the most vibrant centers of visual and performing arts in the world. But until now there has never been an in-depth examination in the United States of Balinese artistic traditions.

Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance, on view at the Asian Art Museum through September 11, 2011, brings the art and artists of Bali to San Francisco, introducing museum visitors to Balinese history and religious beliefs, and illuminating the ways that performance and rituals are integrated into daily life. From woven palm-leaf images of the rice goddess to terrifying wood sculptures of Hindu deities, from gilded chairs for kings to painted palanquins for the gods, from offerings made for family shrines to masks carved for foreign tourists, this close examination of Balinese art includes some 130 diverse artworks. Many of these are among the finest examples of their kind, including sculpture, paintings, ritual objects, architectural structures, masks and costumes, photographs, furniture, and more.

But the Bali exhibition doesn't stop there: Amplified by a brimming schedule of public programming—live performances, artist demonstrations, and hands-on art making—the exhibition sheds light on the role art within the fabric of Balinese life. The show also features a multimedia tour, providing context for many of the individual objects. And it is accompanied by a 376-page, fully illustrated catalogue—the first of its kind to be published in more than thirty years—containing essays by renowned experts representing current scholarship. Curated by Natasha Reichle, the Asian Art Museum's associate curator of Southeast Asian art, Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance is organized by the Asian Art Museum, which is the only place it can be seen, either nationally or abroad.

"Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance introduces visitors to a culture that has long been at the crossroads of many civilizations," states Dr. Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum. "It teaches visitors about Balinese history, religious beliefs and traditions, and artistic practice. Most importantly, it highlights ways in which the Balinese people integrate artworks, ritual, and performance in their daily activities. It poses questions about cultural authenticity, adaptation, and persistence. And it encourages a new evaluation of perishable materials used in ritual artistic practice."

The majority of the artworks in Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance are drawn from six museums in the U.S. and the Netherlands: the Asian Art Museum; the American Museum of Natural History in New York; the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles; the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam; the Rijkmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden; and the Museum Nusantara in Delft. Other objects come from private collections in the Netherlands (a former long term colonial presence in Indonesia) and U.S.

The Island of Bali
"Bali is not harmonious, homogenous, and static," Balinese scholar Degung Santikarma writes. "It is—and has long been—the home of many competing strands of thought and many different ways of being Balinese." A thousand years ago, most regions in Southeast Asia showed evidence of Hindu practices, but today Bali is the only place in the region where ancient Hindu traditions still boldly flourish. The island is not merely a storehouse of past culture; the Balinese have adapted and innovated as they incorporated Hindu and Buddhist ideas into what must have been an already complex network of local beliefs. Likewise, the Balinese have learned from and taught generations of artists from other countries, and Balinese art and performance continues to have an important impact on artists of all kinds worldwide.

Faced by the external pressures of globalization and modern popular culture, Bali has continued to change. The objects in Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance help explain the island's history and religion; demonstrations of how to make offerings illustrate one of the culture's continuing traditions; and performing arts programs show ways Balinese artists adapt and innovate as they present their culture in a 21st-century light.

Exhibition Presentation and Themes
As the title Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance suggests, the exhibition focuses on three major elements:

Visual Art. The artworks featured include sculpture, ceremonial and decorative objects, musical instruments, textiles and costumes, masks, photographs and drawings, architectural elements, puppets, weaponry, and more. Many of the objects displayed were once used in religious rituals—and others of their types are in use even today for the same purposes.

Ritual. Much more than beautiful objects, many of the works on view are of a type that can be imbued with sacred power through ritual and are thought capable of independent powers. The exhibition explores the ways these objects were and are still made sacred—how they are brought to life in ceremony and performance—and uses music, photography, video, and demonstrations to help explain these processes. In the museum's North Court, visitors can watch artists make ritual Balinese offerings, and explore an interactive video program of temple ceremonies on computer monitors.

Performance. Although non-sacred performances exist in Bali, most performances there are deeply connected to or derived from ritual events such as purification rites, exorcisms, and agricultural festivals. Live dance, drama, shadow puppetry, and music performances will take place in a range of open spaces at the Asian Art Museum through the run of the exhibition. These give context to many of the objects on view, letting visitors hear the interlocking melodies of gamelan (tuned percussion) orchestras, see the flickering silhouettes of shadow puppets, and feel the menace of a masked dancer. These performing arts are also documented in video clips in the exhibition's galleries.

Divisions among art, ritual, and performance are a Western construct. The Bali exhibition illuminates the many ways these categories overlap and intermingle in the island's art and culture. For instance, when properly carved and sanctified by a priest, a mask becomes empowered by the presence of a deity. When worn during a ritual dance, it transforms into a protective guardian with magical force.

The exhibition is organized in three thematic sections:

Agricultural Deities and Ancestors in Balinese Art
This section introduces visitors to the geography of the island and some of the most important cultural practices originating there, including worship of the rice deity and ancestor worship. These beliefs remain at the foundation of Balinese religious practice. A female figure made of plaited lontar palm leaves serves as an object into which the rice goddess Dewi Sri may be invited to inhabit. Small figures like this are usually put on wall shrines in village houses, especially those belonging to rice farmers. Here, at home like an ancestor spirit, Dewi Sri receives daily offerings and is asked to look after the well-being of the family. In some cases, these figures do not serve as receptacles for the goddess but rather as offerings to her, accompanying harvest rituals in the fields, and afterward placed in the rice barn. According to some accounts, these offerings are burned in the rice fields in the hope that the harvest will be abundant.
Dewi Sri shares her name with a Hindu goddess, but she very likely incorporates a pre- Hindu rice spirit, the life force of rice plants, which was believed to be related to the soul or life force of human beings. She is not only the rice goddess but also, in a wider sense, a deity of fertility, prosperity, wealth, and beauty. As such, Balinese villagers, especially farmers, feel a closer and more intimate relationship with her than they do with the more distant Hindu gods and goddesses who visit their temples on earth only once a year.

Priests and Princes
This portion of the exhibition explores two interconnected themes, "The Introduction of New Religions" and "The Development of Court Culture." Here, the exhibition looks at the ways in which the Balinese people integrated aspects of imported religious ideas into their local belief systems. The show also examines the roles of both court and village as patrons of the arts. Two gilded wooden chairs dating between the late eighteenth and the early twentieth century are among the dozens of artworks in this section. These richly decorated items may originate from the pavilion of the court of justice in Klungkung. The palace was destroyed after the king's "fight to the finish" (puputan) against the Dutch colonial forces in 1908, but the hall remained intact and was still in use after conquest.

Furniture was not particularly important in traditional Bali. A hundred years ago, high-caste persons sat on mats or square cushions on the floors of elevated pavilions, or on elevated platforms within pavilions. Chairs, tables, and thrones in chair form were later adopted by the courts in imitation of Dutch colonial style, and from the late nineteenth century could be found in Balinese palaces, at least in part to receive European guests.

These chairs have gilded carvings. The armrests of one feature two lion figures. Although the lion is not native to Indonesia, through stories spread from neighboring regions it came to be regarded as ruler of the forest animals and a symbol of power and royalty. This chair's back is entirely carved with flower, leaf, and fern ornaments, representing the lion's natural surroundings. The other chair's back features a carved composition of flowers in a vase, lotus buds, and birds on branches. The birds contrast with the stately crowned and winged serpents that form the armrests. In many Indonesian cultures, the serpent as symbol of new life and fertility has a function in life-cycle rituals, but is also sometimes associated with royal power and protection.

Paradise Collected
This segment examines Bali's interactions with early, influential European and North American visitors. The material included in "Paradise Collected" provides a glimpse of what visitors to the island in the early decades of the twentieth century saw and desired. It looks at the ways that Balinese artists adapted their talents to produce works of art for new Western patrons. Unlike many of the works produced earlier, most of these new objects had no ritual function.

Acclaimed Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias (1904–1957) and his wife, Rose (a dancer and photographer), first traveled to Bali in 1930. Covarrubias had moved to New York at nineteen and had gained fame primarily as a caricaturist, designing covers and illustrations for such publications as Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. The couple were fascinated by Balinese life, particularly by rituals, offerings, and festivals, and Miguel Covarrubias's 1937 book Island of Bali is a remarkable source of information about the art, ritual life, and customs of parts of Bali he had observed during the years he lived there.

In his painting Tanah Bali ("Land of Bali") Covarrubias concisely illustrates the defining geographical features of the island. A trail of volcanoes divides the land, with the two largest, Gunung Batur and Gunung Agung, dominating the east. Smoke rises from the still-active crater of Batur, while the sacred lake Danau Batur fills the volcano's huge collapsed crater, or caldera. Terraced rice fields descend the fertile slopes to the southern shores. The most sacred temple, Pura Besakih, is on the southern slope of Gunung Agung, the most sacred mountain in Bali. Other famous temples dot the island.

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