Mon, 10 Apr 2000

Bawa puts modern renaissance on canvas

By Mehru Jaffer

JAKARTA (JP): To look at the paintings of I. Wayan Bawa is to float back in time to the 16th century, when painters of the historic period of the High Renaissance in Italy had elevated art to a level of noble expression.

All his subjects are either photographic portraits of people, figures of human beings or the passage of sacred Balinese rites and rituals. He is also a consummate painter of landscapes in a style that synthesizes all the innovations of contemporary art, but includes the refined and lyrical practices of ancient masters as well.

Bawa's beauty lies in his careful observation of life and its precise documentation, as if he were defending with his very life and glorifying the value of man on earth. His attempt at the idealization of the human form is almost like a spiritual exercise, inspiring in the viewer a sense of the perfection of god.

Just 26 years old, Bawa is exhibiting for the first time in the capital; on the inaugural day itself he sold 16 of his most evocative and atmospheric paintings of the 36 pieces on display.

"I have no clue who the artist is. But look at all the work that has gone into this. The play of light ... the smoke rising up from the fires of prayer, the brown and rust atmosphere. I just love it," gushed an expatriate about the painting she bought.

Hendra Hadiprana, the well known art consultant, discovered Bawa while he was still a student at Denpasar's Indonesian Arts High School when he was in search of someone to paint a portrait from an ancient photograph. It was two years ago that an art expert referred him to Bawa. Ever since Hendra has refused to let go of the artist.

Hendra has been in the art business for over four decades but he could not think of one artist who could be trusted with the kind of portrait he wanted. Tini is a friend of Hendra's and descendant of Raden Adjeng Kartini, the Javanese noblewoman who was declared by the government as "the heroine of emancipation".

"One morning Tini came to me and said that an elderly ancestor spoke to her in her dream asking her to immortalize him on canvas," recalls Hendra, who was given a worn-out photograph by Tini of the Javanese aristocrat to be enlarged into a life-sized portrait. Today that stunning portrait is one of the most prized possessions in Hendra's personal collection of hundreds of paintings.

Hendra finally found Bawa in Bali, painting from a humble home in the picturesque village of Tebesaya, Ubud. In fact, the father and brother of Bawa are also painters but their work is the usual stuff that is picked up by tourists in bulk.

"Bawa is different. He is very talented and the most attractive aspect of his work is its simplicity," says Hendra, who also admires the artist for his patient and focused demeanor.

Bawa is so unworldly that he was prepared to travel from Bali to Jakarta in a bus. He had never flown in an airplane before; he looked a little bewildered when he was told that he was flying for the inauguration of his exhibition.

Asked to pick his favorite painting for The Jakarta Post, Bawa perched himself before an enigmatic work of the Barong figure, proving how seeped he really is in traditional themes which he explores with such panache in a completely modern style.

The exhibition is open until April 16 at Mitra Hadiprana art gallery in Kemang, South Jakarta. For further information, call 7194715 or 7198547.