by Rio Helmi
Last Saturday was an unpredictable day. All plans went awry, and by early afternoon it became clear that the only thing that was going to work was a siesta.
Just as I started nodding off into a pleasant stupor, my mobile started buzzing. It was a promising young Balinese photojournalist, Anggara Mahendra, saying he would like to meet up at my gallery. A clever cookie, Anggara had been trying to catch me for weeks to discuss “visual literacy”, a subject of great interest but also with the potential of pulling me out of my depth as fast as flotsam on a rip current off Uluwatu.
Needless to say I’d been ‘kinda busy’ for weeks. But this time he literally caught me napping, and before I knew it I was being gracious. So I grumbled out of bed and rolled down to the gallery café hoping that by the time I got there my ‘wise old veteran’ facade would kick in and that the Gods of Glib would be kind to me.
As it turned out, he was doing a workshop with an old acquaintance, Kompas photographer and photography columnist Arbain Rambé. Decades had passed since we last saw each other, and with the help of cappuccinos all around we were soon regaling the younger generation with stories of eccentric, old photog colleagues and pre-internet/AirAsia adventures into the vast remoteness of Indonesia’s outlying islands.
At some point the word Dinosaur came rolling off my tongue, a kind of subconscious preemptive strike before any of the younger attendees actually voiced their thoughts about the ever-so-slightly younger Arbain and my self. At one point Arbain, an avid collector of old camera gear, expressed interest in my dusty old Hasselblad camera gear. When I brought it out it was the subject of some fascination for the digital era babies present. I love digital process, but there is definitely something about learning to use film that is an important part of any photographer’s education.
It felt strange to see how intrigued they were by these mechanical acme of a by–gone professional world. It was as if the gear was from Mars. Speaking of space, remember the first shots we saw of men on the moon? They were shot with Hasselblads, not dinky little Japanese compact digital cameras. Steve Jobs was probably just starting to tinker around in the garage back then. To shoot film successfully meant a much bigger commitment to understanding the process, and obviously a higher standard of competence if you had to do a job like shooting the first moon landing. Or landing in Sumba or Timor in the late Seventies or early Eighties for that matter. Somehow these days we have lost a bit of that all rounded competence, leaving complexity to specialists, yet on the other hand everything we actually do is made as stupid-easy as a selfie with an iPhone.
Realizing that I had made a commitment to go to Bentara Budaya to attend an event about the late Ubud artist I Gusti Nyoman Lempad, I shooed my friends out and rushed off down to Ketewel. For years I had lived in a house belonging to Lempad’s family, and his son Gusti Made Sumung was something of a Bali mentor to me, whereas Lempad himself was a bit more remote. I would see Lempad when I visited the family compound, however in those days I spoke hardly any Balinese so communication with the by then century old icon was a lost cause. However I knew the rest of the family well, and later after his passing helped on the filming of “Lempad of Bali”.
By the time I got to Bentara Budaya the film was rolling. Outside I found long time Bali resident, art historian/critic and author Jean Couteau, who was to be the featured speaker at the discussion, slightly exhausted as he had just got off the plane from a work trip to Jakarta. As we chatted and sipped Bali coffee he pointed out that we were probably the last generation of “outsiders” to have seen Bali as it was. That got us reminiscing about the days when we were a tiny network of non-Balinese regulars – artists, musicians, anthropologists, dancers, etc traipsing around the island.
In the almost tourist-less Bali hinterlands we spent our time witnessing spine tingling, torch lit trances; immersing ourselves into fabulous ceremonies where, as Diana Darling put it, we felt the invisible world on our skin; living in our simple abodes submerged in wondrous tropical nature lit by fireflies; or simply being led through the complex, spontaneous yet simple beauty of Balinese living culture by our unaffected, warm-hearted Balinese friends. A world that has almost disappeared. Yet as I sat there a nagging doubt came up: perhaps this was just a subjective take, perhaps we were just a couple of nostalgic dinosaurs carrying on. Surely if Rudolf Bonnet or Walter Spies were here they would be telling us what we had missed, no?
As if on cue, another old-timer, ethnomusicologist Doug Myers of Yayasan Polosseni wandered in. Now we were a proper troop of dinosaurs. The final credits rolled on the film inside and we went into the hall. To my surprise and slight discomfort Doug and I were ushered to front row seats and summarily announced as guest speakers by the crafty Jean Couteau, who had managed to get the moderator to press us into service.
Jean gave a long, informative and interesting talk detailing the background of Lempad, and his 19th century world that had fast forwarded into the colonial 20th Century, and how relatively late in his life Lempad had been introduced to pen and ink on paper as a technique by Walter Spies yet remained true to his own world, and so forth. However the most fascinating part of the evening were the questions from a Balinese audience consisting of around a hundred or more students and young professionals.
It was clear from the questions that for most of the younger Balinese generation in the hall the modern concept of an artist – individualistic in his/her creativity and iconic in his/her own right, was their only idea of what an artist could be. The three of us dinosaurs found ourselves trying to explain in very real terms how traditionally Balinese artists were not only not concerned with individual “copyright” and marketing themselves, but that they used to conceive and create their work as integral elements within a holistic cultural context that was a living reality not some lofty, museum worthy ideal; and how despite that seeming communal anonymity the process didn’t preclude a person’s individual genius from manifesting. That for a man of Lempad’s status it was natural to contribute his genius to the architecture of so many temples and palaces without needing to announce them as his creations. We three ‘outsiders’ found ourselves in the quite weird position of explaining their own heritage to these young Balinese.
One woman in her thirties asked what, in a modern western context, might have been a reasonable question. Basically she was curious as to why Lempad had depicted so much sexuality in his latter work on paper, was this a shift away from his culture and religion, was it the influence of people like Spies? So here we were again, one “Nak Jawa” and two “Bules” explaining how traditionally in Bali lives were not so partitioned between the profane and the spiritual, the crass and the sublime, the manifest and the invisible, the sexual and the pious, the practical and the cultural, and so on, as they are now under the modernising influence of today’s middle class values. Okay, I admit I personally used the word ‘bourgeois’.
At this point a slightly shy young man stood up and quietly announced himself as Gusti Nyoman Lempad’s great-grandson. Overcoming his obvious discomfort at public speaking, he admitted that he himself had never understood that his great-grandfather was much more than simply an artist who was especially gifted with pen and ink on paper. He said he was grateful for this event, as he had never realized what a tremendous role Lempad as an ‘undagi’ had in helping to creating the 20th Century architecture of Ubud!
By the end of the evening (and the whole day!) I was convinced of two things. Firstly, Jean Couteau was quite possibly right: we were the last generation of ‘outsiders’ to witness Bali as an integral culture. Secondly, living dinosaurs still have some relevance in today’s Bali.
photo by Anggara Mahendra
pen and ink illustration by I Gusti Nyoman Lempad