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Balinese Visual Arts
Balinese Visual Arts

Bali’s vibrant art scene makes the island so much more than just a tropical beach destination. The paintings, sculptures, dance and music reveal the natural artistic talent inherent in all Balinese, a legacy of their Majapahit heritage. Interestingly, there is no word for “art” or “artist” in Balinese. Until the tourists arrived, the artistic expression was exclusively for religious or ritual purposes. Paintings and carvings were produced purely to decorate temples and shrines, while music dance and theatrical performances were put on to entertain the gods who returned to Bali for important ceremonies. Artists did not strive to be different, as many do in the west. Their work could reflect a traditional style or a new idea, but not their personality. Today, Ubud is the undisputed artistic center of the island and artists come from every corner of the world, from Japanese glass blowers to European photographers and Javanese painters, to draw on its inspiration. 

Balinese dance is dynamic, angular and intensely expressive, with the dancers expressing the stories of dance-drama through the gestures of their fingers, hands, head and eyes. 
Balinese music is based on an ensemble known as gamelan, also called a gong. A gong gede, a large orchestra is the traditional form with 35 to 40 musicians. The more ancient gamelan, selunding is still occasionally played in Bali Aga villages.

Balinese textiles were originally woven for ceremonies and as gifts. They are often part of marriage dowries and cremations. The traditional batik sarongs use a dyeing process adapted by the Balinese to produce colorful and patterned fabrics. Balinese ikat involves dyeing either the warp threads, those stretched on the loom, or weft threads, those woven across the warp, resulting in a pattern that is geometric, yet slightly wavy.

Balinese shadow puppets, or Wayang, is more than entertainment. It has been Bali’s candlelit theater for centuries, embodying the sacred seriousness of classical Greek drama. The performances are long and intense, lasting six hours or more, often ending at sunrise. Originally used to bring ancestors back to the world, the shows feature painted buffalo-hide puppets believed to have spiritual power and the dalang, puppet master and storyteller, is an almost mystical figure.

Balinese painting is probably most influenced by Western ideas. Traditional paintings, depicting religious and mythological subjects, were for the temple and palace decorations and had a limited color palette, made using soot, clay and pigs’ bones. The classical langese paintings were originally hangings for temples displaying the wayang figures, rich floral designs and flame and mountain motifs. Iders-iders are scroll paintings, and calendars show dates for rituals and predict the future.

Balinese woodcarving has evolved from its traditional use for doors and columns, religious figures and theatrical masks. Almost all carvings are of local woods, including belalu and jackfruit wood. Wooden carved masks are believed to possess magical qualities and can even have the ability to stare down bad spirits.

Balinese stone carvings were originally produced for temples, where they were placed in specific locations. Door guardians are usually a protective personalities, such as Arjuna; Kala’s monstrous face often peers out above the main entrance, and the side walls of a temple might feature sculpted panels showing the horrors awaiting evildoers in the afterlife.