Bali Artists Resist Change

By Jakarta Globe on 02:24 pm Dec 29, 2013

Gede Suanda Sayur with fri

The Bali Not For Sale art collective is concerned about the loss of the island’s unique culture and traditions. (JG Photos/Putri Fitria)

Day two in Denpasar, southern Bali, I had to share the remaining water in the bathtub with three friends just to wash ourselves. My best friend, Venusia Indah, whose place was where I had been staying, was not complaining so much. It was a normal thing for her. Twice a week, the water supply in their neighborhood was cut off by the authorities.

Tourists, though, have more than 45,000 rooms at upward of 700 hotels to choose from if they want a comfortable stay in Bali. The water flows all day long there, and there are swimming pools too.

The water crisis is only one of the impacts of the massive tourism industry development in the island. This is expanded to worsen as the land used for traditional rice fields are taken over for villas, hotels, restaurants and shops.

It is no wonder, then, that a group of concerned artists has been trying to raise awareness of the plight of the ordinary Balinese. “A rebel artist draw the line… A tribute to farmers, rice fields, children and memories of simple Bali,” describes the group, Bali Not For Sale, on its Facebook page.

But Bali Not For Sale is not just making a statement in the virtual world. One of its expressions of protest can be seen in the middle of a rice terrace in Ubud — an installation art work that was originally created without any serious purposes in 2010. But it has turned into a must-see icon for visitors to Ubud.

One of the creators is Gede Suanda Sayur, 33, a native of Ubud and a graduate of the School of Fine Arts at the renowned Indonesian Institute of Arts in Yogyakarta. The eye-catching installation, surrounded by lush green rice plants, caused a buzz some time ago. Newspapers and magazines published pictures of it. One magazine even kicked off a quiz to find out who was behind this “crazy” work. It was an anonymous work at the beginning of its development.

“I don’t compel people [who sell their rice fields] to change their mind-set; I’m just trying [to start the change] from my own self,” Sayur says.

He is the owner of the rice field where the installation is located, and of an art space in front of it. Named Luden House, this art space is where a number of artists hang out, sharing the same concerns and creating art together.

These artists regularly hold some activities such as music concerts, art performances, lelakut (scarecrow) competitions, kite competitions, film screenings, and various art workshops for children and young people. They also designed a T-shirt, selling for Rp 100,000 ($8.10), and stickers (Rp 5,000) to raise money to help the few traditional farmers remaining in Ubud to hold on to their fields.

“To be a farmer now is very difficult. Their land is subject to class 1 tax, which is the same as the tax for villas, because they’re situated in a tourist area,” says I Wayan Gendo Suwardana, the head of the Bali chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi).

“There’s no market guarantee [for their rice], their harvests are declining, and much of what they earn goes toward paying the tax.”

Gendo says that while the farmers have come in for criticism for selling their land to developers, a large portion of the blame should also go to the local authorities for their lax land-use policies. The concept of “selling out,” he says, should not only refer to the sale of the farmland, but also the policies that allow the “carefree issuance” of building permits and rampant violations of zoning regulations.

Made Bayak, 33, a visual artist whose works center around the negative impacts of tourism on Bali, traces the problem back to the government’s anti-communist purge of 1965-66, when anyone critical of the government was branded a communist sympathizer and either jailed or killed.

“Back then, almost 90 percent of Balinese intellectuals who were critical of government policies were wiped out. Bali then turned into a kind of toll road for foreign investment: everyone could get in, everyone was accepted by the tourism industry,” he says.

Bayak acknowledges that taking on the island’s all-powerful tourism industry is to tilt at windmills, but insists he has a duty to raise the issue through his art or risk watching Bali get exploited to the point that it has nothing left.

He vows not to stop producing works that are a slap in the face of everyone in the tourism industry. And indeed, people deserve a slap. That is, if they still have a heart for Bali.

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  • Susi Johnston

    With utmost respect, seriously, I take issue with your headline. It’s not true, and it’s misleading. Bali artists do not resist change at all. Quite the opposite. They embrace and drive change, especially in this instance. They resist change for the worse, and provide alternatives for change that can make our future better. What they resist is commodification of land, culture, and people. They resist the raging fever of building, building, building, in the name of “perkembangan pariwisata”. It’s like a runaway bulldozer, and it’s been that way for a long time. It is the norm. The status quo. The status quo in Bali is a runaway bulldozer with nobody driving it. In resisting this they are not resisting change at all! Quite the opposite. They are calling for change! Let’s make a big change, by turning off the bulldozer. At least for now. Please.