Balinese artist Putu Edy Asmara’s beautiful allegory of deception

Balinese artist Putu Edy Asmara first came to my attention about twelve years ago in an exhibition of contemporary artworks in Ubud. The technical standard and ideas within the work set him apart from his peers. For then on I have observed his growth. During the past few years, he has been prolific, his work getting noticeably stronger. Proficient in both the oil and acrylic paint mediums Putu also channels his ideas into art performances and installations.

‘The Legend of Pedanda Baka’ 2021, 130 x 100cm acrylic on canvas, Putu’s most recent work is the highpoint of a series of works created during the past six months. The central character in the narrative Pedanda Baka, a crane represented as a part bird part human creature is wearing a traditional Balinese ceremonial mask – a topeng. A Pedanda is a high priest from the Brahmin caste of the Balinese Hindu culture.

In topeng performances, the audience is presented with an array of generally non-speaking characters in ornate patterned masks representing both humans and animals. The cult of the ancestors is linked with the use of masks and it is believed that the dancers are the interpreters of the gods. The masks are created to house spirits and energies allowing them during the performance to pass back over to this world. Supported by gamelan ensemble the performances may be dramatic with fighting scenes or comedies. The masks may represent contradictions of the human character, beauty and ugliness, good and evil.

Pedanda Baka is a greedy Crane who wants to prey on fish in a lake by using deception. Each day the crane remains silently on the edge of the lake and does not prey on the fish. He has a sad expression on his face hoping the fish will believe in his good intention not to harm them. One day the fish ask him what is the cause of his sadness. Pedanda Baka replies that the pool will soon dry up and the fish will die, so he offers to help by moving them to another lake. The fish believe him and are willing to be carried one by one by one, yet the crane eats all the fish. The crab, however, would not be tricked by the wicked Pedanda Baka who is finally killed by the crab.

The perfectly balanced composition with a gorgeous purple background describes the crane with two human arms for legs standing within a flowering lotus plant with large yellow and purple blossoms. In his left hand Pedanda Baka holds a stick which to which a fish and grab clings. Upon the cranes back depicted with stunning blue and green feathers is a turtle and a frog gazing up at the topeng. Atop of the mask is an arrangement of yellow frangipani flowers along with other decorative details. Depicted in the top left is the sun with a large inner eye watching over the scenario. His style fuses elements of surrealism describing his wonderfully colourful and imaginative characters, some which are icons of his culture with symbolic meaning. His narrative is focussed and comments upon aspects of the human character and Balinese society.

According to Putu, “The key to this painting is to tell of the lies and evil tactics behind the mask of the high priest Pedanda Baka who pretends to be wise, compassionate and caring. This story teaches us to be careful of other people, do not believe in sweet words and promises, because it might be a trap. In reality today many people wear spiritual robes, have leadership characteristics but they turn out to be liars.”

“I wish to develop my imagination not limited by space and time giving freedom to non-normative forms, capable of representing other surprising and imaginative forms giving the works their own unique value,” Putu said about his recent 2020 – 2021 series of paintings.

Academically trained from 2003-2008 Putu studied fine art at the Indonesia Art Institute (ISI) Denpasar. In 2008 he was awarded: The Winner of Storiette Ilustration KOMPAS, The Winner of Radar Bali Art Award 2008 and Best Art Work of The Batchelor of Art Final Exam (Tugas Akhir ISI Denpasar) 2008-2009.  Born in 1982 in Tampaksiring, Gianyar, Central Bali he began exhibiting in 2006 and has participated in group shows in Bali, Yogyakarta, Jakarta, China, Malaysia, Thailand and Germany. His solo exhibition in 2008 ‘Don’t Cry For Me Indonesia, featured installations and performance art and was held at Danes Art Veranda, Denpasar. Putu’s works are in the collection of Museum Fűr Volker Kunde ( Museum of Ethnology, Vienna) and the West Coast Painting Academy Museum, Qiangdao China.

Instagram: @asparanggi_edy

Words: Richard Horstman

Images: courtesy of Putu Edy Asmara

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