Rozome in the Land of Batik
August 31, 2011
I began going to Bali for winter studio time over 12 years ago, first to escape the harsh winters of Kyoto and, more recently, those of New Hampshire. Bali – specifically the many artist’s enclaves surrounding Ubud (in the central state of Gianyar) – has provided an excellent environment for making art and for solitary retreats in a spiritually and artistically supportive environment. The magnet of Bali’s lush environment and culture also lets me connect with many other artists drawn there from throughout Asia and beyond.
After years of using Bali time for making art, I wanted to share some of the finished work that was usually just packed and carried back to my home studio in NH. I felt that an ideal venue might be the Agung Rai Museum of Art (ARMA); ideal because of its fine collection and singular commitment to arts and culture of the region.
Nightly per- formances of Balinese traditional drama, weekly dance classes for local children and short classes on various cultural topics for visiting guests are all part of their programming. The dynamic and charismatic owner/director Agung Rai often visited our outdoor sketching class in the ARMA Museum garden, so in 2010 I made an appointment to share my work with him.
He was intrigued and enthusiastic. An invitation to hold a solo show ensued along with discussion about a catalog – all at our initial meeting. Delightful. However, I soon learned through meetings with Sales and Marketing that there could be many conditions and hurtles that I had to surmount to “pull this off’.
In the end Transcendence: Japanese Batik in Bali, was held from March 6 – April 26, 2011, at the Agung Rai Museum in Ubud, Bali. I exhibited 18 pieces of work created in the past 8 years, all conceived in my studio in a hamlet of Ubud.
Expectation vs. Reality
An invitation from a museum in the West might carry the expectation that the show would be hosted: publicity materials created, the exhibition mounted and publicized, an opening reception provided – and perhaps even a catalog financed – for an invited artist. In Indonesia…things can be quite different. Many artists are expected to handle all costs themselves in addition to offering a commission on sales.
It seems that in the past some respected Asian art associations had “rented space” at ARMA to hold their exhibitions, paying for press conferences, 5-course meals for 100 guests, entertainment with gamelan musicians and traditional dancers as well as a professional MC to host the event. In Bali, this was not unusual.
And then there was me: a contemplative artist on a limited budget; an ordained Buddhist with a renunciant lifestyle. Much of this I chose not to do. Happily, Agung Rai said that ”of course” I would not be expected to pay for the space.
In preparation for the exhibition, I worked through the fall of 2010 to source funding to print a 24-page catalog. An entrepreneurial grant through the NH State Council of the Arts was helpful with a portion of the costs. A colleague did the graphic design and put it on a disc for local printing in Indonesia, thus saving half the printing costs.
The catalog documents both past and present work and includes recommendations from Agung Rai plus 2 Japanese rozome masters and a personal essay on “A Contemplative Life in Art”. The 18 pieces of work were carried into Bali in a long box, as personal luggage, trusting that the rains on the tarmac at Boston and Maui airports would not cause damage, and later, that the heavy humidity in Bali would not create mold as my work lay boxed and waiting to be hung.
I chose to install the work in the ‘open’ gallery, a very central place at the entrance to the museum grounds with high ceilings and approximately 3600 square feet of space open to the gardens. Within this gallery space there is a benevolent 10-foot statue of Saraswati (Goddess of Art and Music), a running steam and tranquil koi pond. Though it sounds wonderful, an atmospheric gallery open on one side to the garden and ARMA Resort grounds meant I had to trust both the Balinese weather at the end of the rainy season and the limited security.
With Sarasvati’s blessings, all went well. The exhibition opened the day following Nyepi, the annual Hindu Day of Silence, and ran for 3 weeks. Poignantly, the artist reception was held the day after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, when the news was still making its way throughout Asia. I can only hope the exhibition, which explored themes of transcendence and healing, was aided by its natural surroundings to emit a vibration of peace and introduce some calm into the chaos of world events.
More than 750 guests visited, including friends from Japan, Java, Europe and the USA. I was interviewed by the Balinese press as well as the Japanese newspapers published in Jakarta. A highlight was the gallery talk I gave. It allowed me to walk through the exhibition and elaborate on individual pieces while answering questions from a people who know the batik process very well.
Thus Agung Rai’s deep desire to share this technique with local artists was fulfilled. Art college and high school teachers brought their students to view this very different Japanese–style batik produced by Western hands. And I was pleased to be able to bring my work ‘back to source’; to be able to share it with the country and people who inspired it.
(Editor’s Note: The batik-making process was imported into Hindu Bali by the Muslim/animist Javanese who migrated there to take advantage of the demand for it created by Western tourist/travelers. The Balinese, like most Indonesians, now consider batik part of their cultural heritage even though it was not made by the Balinese themselves until well into the 20th century.)
The Exhibition and Catalog
A recent piece, Column, is dedicated to the healing of the human core and was accomplished with a full-size human figure on one layer and a floating second layer of silk organza. The sheer layer depicts a 5-foot spinal column in wax etching and carries golden mantras stenciled on each vertebra.
The images and the surrounding gardens encouraged contemplation and reflection. Many visitors were deeply touched, returning numerous times during the run of the show. The work sold modestly.
Travel always challenges views and expectations; planning this exhibition was no exception. Upon reflection, I would not have been able to carry the trust, confidence, and ability to relinquish – to let go – that was necessary to accomplish this event without the grounding of a 26-year meditation practice and study. Throughout the process, I was brought back to the need for harmony, to let go of my urge to react, to ease my Western expectations and to move with as much grace and kindness as possible through the deep, green, humid expectations of a Bali museum experience. It was a wonderful opportunity, with many blessings, at a time when there was much suffering in the Pacific rim. As Ibu and I made offerings of incense to Sarasvati during the beginning ceremony, I continued to send out wishes that all beings be happy and at peace.
Dh. Kiranada (formerly Betsy Sterling Benjamin) is an acknowledged master of the Japanese rozome wax-resist technique with over 40 years of experience creating resist-dyed textiles. Author of The World of Rozome: Wax Resist Textiles of Japan, she has exhibited her work in more than 50 shows world-wide with solo exhibitions in Costa Rica, Germany, England, Japan, Indonesia and the USA. Kiranada maintains a working studio, teaches surface design at Massachusetts College of Art and Design (Boston), lectures internationally and leads workshops in the USA and abroad. She was ordained in the Triratna Buddhist Order in 2009.
Visit her website at www.betsysterlingbenjamin.com
The 24-page booklet/catalog of Kiranada Retrospective Exhibition may be ordered for a small fee here
View KSB at work in this excellent 7-minute video from 2009 by WMUR New Hampshire here