Agung Rai is a Balinese art dealer of international renown. In 1978 he opened his first gallery, and the Agung Rai Museum of Art in Ubud opened in 1996. People from all over the world meet here to enjoy and discuss art, dance and other forms of creativity.
How did you learn to become an art dealer?
Nobody taught me about collecting art. I had a hard life because my father was only a farmer. I didn’t go to school, my father couldn’t afford it. He didn’t own the rice fields, not like most Balinese. So the income wasn’t enough. I needed to help him. In the evenings I caught eels and fish, and my mother would sell them at the market.
At fifteen I had to learn a trade like most people of my age – gamelan, painting, carving – but I had none of these talents. Finally I became a street peddler instead, selling the paintings and carvings produced by the village’s young people.
I was hustling to backpackers from 1970 to 1978. Then after eight years I went to Kuta. I spent the money to buy art again, to sell it. And then in 1978 I opened a gallery in Peliatan, which was known as Agung Rai Gallery. It was also like a painting school – I brought in children, and provided materials – twenty, thirty or forty children came after school to draw. I took them to the rice fields as well, and explained to them the story of the rice they ate. They knew rice but they didn’t know how the farmer was producing it. The life of a rice farmer is very hard, sometimes lucky, sometimes not; I knew this well.
Did the success of the gallery lead to bigger things?
I had to go overseas, to many different countries to promote the gallery. Then I began to have the dream of opening a museum. I wanted to show people the evolution of Balinese art.
After World War 1 there were many European artists living here, and of course there was interaction; the Balinese picked some things up from the foreigners, and the foreigners also learned something from the local people. I was travelling around, selling Balinese art in Germany, Holland, New York, Washington, and at the same time buying art that was linked to the culture here. Many of the pieces from pre-independence, during the Dutch time, were scattered all over Europe and the United States. I kept buying and buying. This was all part of an offering, a dedication. I loved it. It was not about making money, it was about education, through art, through historical pieces.
Did these collections give birth to the museum?
Yes, and I tried to link the art with the surroundings. I bought rice fields to keep them as rice fields, and planted medicinal plants – you can do a lot you know, with the fruit, the bark. There is a lot of hidden knowledge here, especially amongst the medicine men. My focus was on education too. Most people can’t afford to go to school, but they can learn something here: English, dance, music, painting, batik, to develop their skills. We have three generations of Balinese learning here, from elderly people to children.
Are you setting out to preserve Balinese traditions that might otherwise be lost?
You don’t want to lose the Balinese uniqueness. The tradition here is very creative, innovative, rich. Traditionally there were no prima-donnas, just farmers, house-builders, temple-builders, who were musicians, dancers, painters and craftsmen at the same time. That was life here. It was all an offering. It was all about community; that was the source of learning and creativity. Everybody was happy to teach the young ones.
What’s your vision for the future of Bali?
My idea is to help people open their minds, especially now that we’re facing globalization and technology. I think it’s very important to look back at nature. How rich nature is. In Bali we have home, we have family, we have community and food – but some people become stressed and depressed because they’re using too much computer technology. This can happen anywhere… they have no opportunity to listen to their own power, to their own divine, to know why they’re here. That’s what we get through art made by man, and art made by nature.
What I’m researching is quality of life in the everyday. If you’re listening, life is very simple. When you’re in harmony, you are more creative, and you get to become wiser, more mature. It comes from interaction with nature. I work a lot with children, with youth, with art and dancing, to enhance sensitivity and sensibility.
I love the people here in Bali. I love the nature here. I’m doing what I love. I follow my heart and my dreams and I’m enjoying the process.