A Tribute To Balinese Women

Published 06 January 2011   

The Artwork of Cok Mas Astiti

In Bali, art was always considered to be men’s work, so women were not accepted as artists nor encouraged to become artists. This was due not to a systematic discrimination or disempowerment of Balinese women, but merely to the difference in traditional gender roles. In fact, prior to the establishment of the Seniwati Gallery of Art by Women less than 20 years ago, there was a total lack of awareness of the existence of female Balinese artists.

Text: Rachel Love

Cok Mas Astiti hails from Payangan, Gianyar and was fortunate to be born into an aristocratic Balinese family, with parents who were able to accept that their daughter wished to become an artist. She developed a love of painting when she was just 10 years old and she later studied and graduated in Fine Arts at Udayana University in Denpasar, where she is now a lecturer, teaching painting.

It is no coincidence that Cok Mas’ work focuses on the lives and feelings of Balinese women. By becoming an artist in a man’s world, she has achieved something that Balinese women of her age have only ever dreamed of. In addition to this, she has made a successful professional career of her art, as well as finding time to bring up five children and fulfill all the religious and social obligations required of a Balinese woman of her high caste.

She paints perceptive, tender images of ordinariness, made extraordinary by their substance and metaphor. Her expressionist figurative renderings encapsulate a deeply emotional narrative within the layers of her work. Each piece depicting her intense observations of the texture of daily life in Bali, which might engage and challenge the viewer to explore beneath the surface to find meaning and hope amid the difficulties sometimes faced by Balinese women. The artist’s obvious love for pattern and flat washes of ravishing colour all help to enhance the idea, and she often uses the simplest of forms to express strong emotions.

Occasionally Cok Mas’ work is introspective – a self portrait, perhaps, of the artist when she was pregnant with her fifth child and already had four very young children to take care of. “I was always so busy and so tired,” she explains, “There was so much to do, so much responsibility, I worked hard and would barely sleep, yet everyday I would watch my children grow. Now, if children and men look at my paintings, I want them to truly appreciate their mothers and their wives.” In fact, there is a message in all of her paintings, “I hope that all women will love and take responsibility for their children, and think about the children’s futures.” Asked why she uses bright colours, she replies, “Because my heart is very happy. If I’m feeling sad if I use less colour.”

In 1995 Cok Mas spent 10 weeks as artist in residence at Media Park Sud in Cologne, Germany, and then five years later she was invited to the USA to visit the Vermont Studio Centre in Burlington, where she stayed for two months as artist in residence, holding a solo exhibition at Red Mill Gallery. These wonderful experiences gave her a deeper appreciation of the global value of local artistic traditions, while also enhancing her professional standing among her peers, and her own validation as an artist. “When I returned from the US,” she claims, “the colour in my artwork became much brighter. This was because I went on my own and I was frightened, but I came back confident.”

Her feminist principals come out in a painting of two young pregnant women. “These women are pregant but they don’t have husbands. It’s a very difficult situation for them in Bali, they will lose all respect, which is unjust because the women get blamed, not the men, but it is the men who are angry. It is not always good, my culture, not always balanced.” Yet, her graceful imagery is remarkably effective in conveying the power and strength of her female subjects, especially in another painting, which states: “Washing, cooking, working, pregnant, no problem!”

Despite the sometimes heartfelt themes, the predominence of bright colours indicates both happiness and humour in Cok Mas’ work, and this can be seen in her joyous representations of motherhood—a Madonna-&-Child-like portrait of a mother and baby, for example, and a picture of a tiny baby with a contented smile. There are also some charming observations of Bali’s culture conflict in the flash of a tourist camera. More than one painting illustrates a procession of women and children on their way to the temple being watched by bikini-clad female tourists, with the ubiquitous motley pack of Bali dogs in the foreground. The artist laughs in response to a question about the dogs, “It’s symbolic.” She says. “It’s because my son is a vet. He is very much in love with dogs and he takes care of them.”

Cok Mas Astiti is one of the ten founder member-artists of the Seniwati Gallery in Ubud. The gallery’s mission is to expose the long hidden and unrecognised brilliance of independent women artists resident in Bali, to train and encourage gifted young Balinese girls who hope to become artists, and to facilitate sales of artwork by these talented women. It has grown to become one of the most respected and exciting galleries of Balinese art with a full programme of exhibitions, one-woman or group shows and events for art lovers and collectors. The brainchild of British-born Mary Northmore, the gallery has also assisted many female artists to travel overseas both for exhibition purposes and for educational studies.

Cok Mas Astiti’s artwork can be viewed and purchased at:
The Seniwati Gallery of Art by Women
Jl Sriwedari 2B, Banjar Taman, Ubud
Tel: +62 361 975 485

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