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The art of Bali, your special island

May 21, 2011 | 11:00 am

BaliIn 1930, Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias and his wife, Rose, traveled to the island of Bali in Indonesia and promptly fell in love with what they saw. They stayed nine months, soaking up the natural beauty and distinct culture. Covarrubias later wrote a classic book called “Island of Bali,” which somewhat overshadowed the art he made on the trip. One of those paintings is a stylized map of Bali, showing the diamond-shaped island dominated by smoking volcanoes towering over lush valleys and hillsides terraced into rice fields. Temples dot the terrain and in the ocean dragons and mermaids swim while a cruise ship steams away.

The map — displayed in a show at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum called “Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance” — nicely sums up the seductive allure that has made the island such a byword for exotica. Not to mention a land of contrasts.

Bali is a Hindu enclave in the middle of the most populous Islamic country in the world. The island is verdant yet also densely populated, divided into hill-clinging rice fields that make for beautiful photos but backbreaking labor.

Its people are celebrated for weaving artistic and spiritual practices into daily life, but the island’s history is soaked in blood, from the Dutch conquest in the early 1900s to a dirty war against suspected communists in the 1960s. Only 2,000 square miles in area, Bali boasts tens of thousands of temples. The Balinese language has no word for religion — so saturated is the culture with notions of the divine that none appears necessary.

The show, which runs through Sept. 11, is the first in the U.S. to broadly examine the art and culture of Bali. More than 130 objects — including  sculpture,  musical instruments and textiles — are on display.

For the full Arts & Books article, click here.

--Michael J. Ybarra

Photo: The widow Rangda, wood and pigments. Credit: Asian Art Museum