Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.), the ancient Greek philosopher, famously declared, “Know thyself”. Carved into stone at the entrance to Apollo’s temple at Delphi, the inscription has encouraged people throughout the ages to engage in a search for self-understanding.
Balinese emerging artist Ida Ayu Komang Sartika Dewi’s creative practice strips away the invisible layers of her being in a quest for self-knowledge and understanding. In doing so, she explores her creative potential while engaging in powerful therapy. Disempowered by an array of painful illnesses since an early age, art has become Dayu’s sanctuary.
I immediately recognised Dayu as a sensitive and talented soul. Her ideas are solid and unique, backed with remarkable technical skills. Studying her Instagram content, one could quickly jump to conclusions. Is she another young lady obsessed with her self-image and social media persona? Her pictorial narrative, however, is by intent. “I’m doing self-portrait painting for therapy, trust me..it works.” states her IG profile.
Drawing is a fundamental that many artists neglect. The ability to construct 3dimensional images through understanding how to create volume through light and shadow opens the door to creating powerful visual illusions. Dayu is proficient in both drawing and one of the most challenging mediums to master, watercolour.
Childhood creativity developed into a passion for drawing, and by the age of fifteen, Dayu began making self-portraits. Due to her illnesses limiting her physical capacities sitting and manoeuvring a pencil was the best she could do. In 2015, Dayu was diagnosed with breast cancer. “The pain is often unbearable, sometimes making it impossible to draw. So I began experimenting with watercolour, which requires less effort. Art is my meditation and a powerful practice to help forget the pain,” Dayu said.
“Until recently, I decided to use my body as an object of my work. The reason is simple. It’s not sparked by the feminist movement or other complicated anxieties out there,” explained the art education graduate from UNDIKSHA University Singaraja, born in 1998 in Buleleng, North Bali. “Instead, I realized that I didn’t know myself enough. The world is scary but fun. Even my own body has many secrets, and I want to know more.”
Dayu compliments her art with writing and practises journaling whenever she is in darker moods, writing about her fears and barriers to manifesting a happy and fulfilling life. Writing, too, is powerful therapy. She has recently developed her website, which she publishes her artwork accompanied by descriptive text. Dayu shares her experiences using her website as a platform to inspire others who may encounter similar challenging life circumstances or wish to learn of her creative process and thoughts on art-making.
Typically, Dayu’s works describe her struggles with her illness, ‘Taste Me, Don’t Waste Me’, however, is a luscious excess of gorgeousness taking on a fresh trajectory. Overflowing with sweet tooth desires, chocolate, cakes, strawberry syrup and fruit, Dayu depicts herself both reclining in bliss and sampling desserts. The composition is playful, humorous and sexy, yet marks a narrative development described on her website:
“I must admit it. Being human in the material world, like it or not, we must make ourselves as attractive as possible. Either by improving yourself or….even self-exploitation? Like sweets, even without tasting, we know for sure it tastes sweet. Right? With an attractive appearance, it will be faster to take the viewer’s heart, which ultimately determines their future (the sweets). Unfortunately, they only have two fates.”
“They are sold out or wasted, becoming rotten.”
“This is my first work inspired by life; instead of talking about my illness, using the object of my body and face as a representation. The reason? I am also human and have experienced this for myself. Young women need to make themselves attractive; otherwise, you will be left out.”
‘Fantasy World of Mine’ exposes Dayu’s vulnerability, the image, however pulsates with a soothing, contemplative ambience. Lying naked, suspended by hands above a lotus pond, this colourful work depicts Dayu held in grace by a flotilla of butterflies in a Van Gogh sky. “I paint realities I wish to experience, flavoured with fantasy worlds that are comfortable and pain-free,” Dayu told me. “They are difficult to achieve; however, painting is my therapy, the creative act is transformative.”
‘No! Don’t Eat That!’ at a glance is immediately whimsical, with associated meanings. The pencil sketch reveals Dayu about to eat junk food, which must be avoided due to her illness, her contemplation, and her final reaction. Her facial expression describing it isn’t wise to do so. As a cultural arts teacher at SMPN 1 Siririt (middle school), North Bali, Dayu also works as a private art teacher. Outside of this, she balances her cultural family commitments with managing her illness, which involves natural medicines and creativity. Some may believe that this is a bold decision; however, the brain thinks, and the heart knows.
During the pandemic, the global demand for art therapists went through the roof. Cost-effective and functional for various mental and physical illnesses, art is a valuable and intimate practice. Understanding yourself better is essential, according to the historian, philosopher and best-selling author of ‘Sapiens’ and ‘Homo Deus’, Professor Yuval Noah Harari. “In the 20th-century, we had the advice, get to know yourself better. But now, in the 21st-century, we have real competition. Google, Amazon and Coca-Cola are out to hack you. First, they sell you products. But they are out to manipulate our desires and minds.”
At the tender age of 23, Dayu is an inspiring young woman with a bright future. Art making and journaling are powerful modes of self-healing while allowing her access and understanding of the intuitive world. There is an old saying, “go within, or go without”. Dayu’s story is a remarkable testament to this truth.
This article was published in NOW!Bali Magazine in October 2021
Words: Richard Horstman