Reconstructing images of ‘Paradise’: WAYAN SUJA’S on going artistic investigation into the Balinese identity

Identity politics and the changing nature of what it means to be Balinese is a common theme for contemporary Balinese artists to explore within their works. This investigation began in earnest in 1970, not in Bali, yet Yogyakarta. At the time a group of young artists were studying at the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI), their teacher was the pioneering Balinese modernist Nyoman Gunarsa (1944-2017).  

Living in a foreign Javanese culture outside their island home and its traditional communal structures Made Wianta, Pande Gede Supada, Wayan Sika, and a later Made Djirna and Nyoman Erawan were open and hungry for a new era creativity. The outcome was a revolutionary period of expressive art involving the investigation of symbols that construct the Balinese identity.

Wayan Suja, born 1975, Batubulan, Gianyar represents generation, born a quarter of a century after the forerunners mentioned above, who continue the artistic pursuit into identity. A member of the ground breaking and controversial avant-garde collective Klinik Seni Taxu 2002 – 2006, during the past decade and a half Suja has made valuable contributions, presenting new aesthetic developments in the sphere of Balinese and Indonesian contemporary painting.

Suja utilized plastic as a symbol of modern consumerism and globalization increasingly encroaching upon Pulau Dewata (Island of the Gods) to emphasize his concepts within his works. In Psst, don’t tell anyone I am Balinese too, 2005 to describe his ideas about the challenges facing his culture and the dynamics of change Suja depicted a child with a plastic bag of a popular international food brand upon his head concealing his identity.

His thematic explorations evolved to include various iconic Balinese characters rendered behind layers of plastic. His pictures featured the humble farmer to Ni Pollock, the famous beauty and muse of the celebrated ex-pat Belgian painter Adrien Le Mayeur (1880-1958), who came to represent the objectified ‘exotic’ Balinese woman as represented through western eyes. Suja’s aesthetics advanced also, becoming a technically accomplished oil painter, his images enhanced by excellent colourist skills.

His latest technical developments within his ongoing theme are on show in RE-IMAGING Identity, Suja’s fourth solo exhibition open 15 November – 15 December at Maya Sanur Resort. The artist, who is a graduate in Fine Art from the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) Denpasar, presents twenty-one works ranging in size from 15 x 15 cm to 150 x 150 cm, in his new visual language, a departure from his signature style.

and adds. “Working in oils, it is possible to finely tune the details, while with acrylic paint, the process is different. Oil and acrylic each have their distinct advantages and disadvantages,” said the artist who held solo exhibitions Mythical Beauty at Galeri Nasional Indonesia, Jakarta and Wrapping Identity, at Vanessa Art Link, CIGE, Beijing, China, both in 2009.

Balinese traditional dance and performance is a potent expressive language and eye movement enhances the drama of the performers interactions and communications. Eyes are central to the image of the Balinese identity.  Old Picture #1, 2019 depicts a black line sketch of a Balinese woman in ceremonial headdress rendered upon an abstract background. Her face is positioned three quarter side profile her right eye is clearly defined with a sharp laser stare, yet her left eye lacks clarity. She glares out from the canvas and her expression is cold. The abstract elements with the composition are a powerful visual force, equally as powerful as her chilling stare, while Suja’s earthy colour palette enhances the gloomy atmosphere. Old Picture #1 has a distinct raw, unfinished quality that makes it clearly stand out from the rest.

In Balinese Woman’s Countenance, 2019 Suja accentuates the size of the subject’s eyes, while her intense expression adds an element of the ‘super-real’. “These two portraits of women with glaring expressions is a representation of the Balinese whose lives are becoming increasingly complex with other issues outside of their traditional obligations. Angry and tense facial expressions suggests heightened stress levels as the pace of life increasingly speeds up,” said the artist who has exhibited extensively in Bali and Indonesia since 1998 and internationally in Singapore, China, Taiwan Hong Kong and in Europe. 

This painting’s strength is within the balance of the contrasting realistic and the abstract visual elements. While fascinating green nondescript forms seem to float above the subject’s head, the background appears ‘fractured’ emphasizing her emotional state. Suja was first recognized for his talent in 2000 as one of the Finalists of the 7th Phillip Morris Art Awards, he was a Top 30 Finalist of Asian Art Prize Sovereign Art Foundation in 2005, and more recently a 2010 Finalists of Indonesia Art Award.  Suja admits this is only the beginning of his experimentations, and he has yet to achieve aesthetic satisfaction. I too believe that his best is yet to come.

RE-IMAGING Identity  – Wayan Suja

15 November – 15 December 2019

Maya Sanur Resort

Jalan Danua Tamblingan, Sanur, Bali

Words: Richard Horstman

Images: Richard Horstman & Dwi Wibowo

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