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A Flourishing Community of Art and Soul

Half an hour's walk or a 10-minute drive from central Ubud, due south along the shaded main street of Padangtegal past open rice paddies, art shops and homestays, brings you to the village of Pengosekan (pronounced: PongoSAYkan), which despite its small size, has over the past 20 years become a major player on the Balinese art scene.

Although Pengosekan paintings are seldom seen in shops and galleries, and must be hunted down in the village itself, no serious exhibit of Balinese art is complete without a few, and they grace the walls of collectors, museums and palaces around the world (the aristocrats of neighboring Mas were somewhat put out when Queen Elizabeth insisted on being taken to low-caste Pengosekan in search of a painting; the villagers themselves were disappointed that she had forgotten to wear her crown).

Only recently has Pengosekan emerged from a state of semi-isolation, with the bridging of a river which previously could only be forded on precarious stepping stones that washed away with every rainfall. It is perhaps because of this isolation that the artists of Pengosekan have not been followers and imitators, but individualistic pioneers of a new style in Balinese art and life. In 1979 they established the island's first artists' cooperative, exhibiting and selling together and supporting each other with raw materials in the, days when the cost of a tube of imported acrylic paint would feed a large family for three weeks. Incorporating elements of traditional Balinese communalism, they called themselves the Pengosekan Community Farmers and Artists.

The cooperative experiment

On my second day in Bali, in 1971, 1 made the long and tortuous (in those days) bemo journey from the coast, hemmed in by chattering market ladies and their produce, and waded calf-deep across the river to Pengosekan. It was the season of the dragon flies, which hovered in their thousands above the rice paddies. Children charged, shouting and laughing in pursuit, trapping them on glue-tipped bamboo whips and threading them on long strings to take home and deep fry as protein-rich snacks. A farmer and his cow, both swollen with a head-to-foot coat of glistening mud, laboriously ploughed his field, their enlarged muscles rippling and crackling in a slow, methodical dance of regeneration.

As the earthen walls of the village closed around me, a duck-herd led his flock through shafting rays of evening sunlight. The frantically pumping feet of his platoon (early writer, called them "Bali Soldiers") faltered at the sight of so horrific a pink stranger, and their quacking reached a hysterical pitch, but then they swept on past - a relentless wave of dappled brown. I felt a surge of alarm; this was all to good to be true. Beneath the bucolic calm I sensed energies and tensions that no Westerner was equipped to cope with.

I had come armed with only a letter of introduction, given me by a journalist friend in Jakarta with the words: "He's an ex-teacher turned-artist, and the driving force of the new cooperative. He's a bit of a philosopher and the only person in Pengosekan who speaks any English. You may find him and his village interesting." Quite an understatement as Pengosekan would become my home, and Dewa Nyoman Batuan, my most lasting and stimulating friend in Bali, opening windows for me onto the Balinese way of living and perceiving.

I finally found Dewa Batuan at work on a large canvas of a cosmological mandala, with all the levels of existence radiating out from the Hindu trinity at the center. A moon faced man with lively enquiring eyes, Batuan seemed about my age, though I would later learn that he was almost 10 years my senior. Several other artists continued with their own paintings while he joined me over a glass of potent Balinese coffee. As we talked in broken English and more broken Indonesian, he became animated, often Pumping his hands together for emphasis, his face creasing into a broad smile and occasionally escalating to uninhibited laughter at some joke.

The cooperative was still in its first precarious year, and his ambitions for it seemed to me wildly optimistic, but most of his dreams would be realized surprisingly soon. A Westerner was already planning to mount an exhibition of their work in Europe, and a resident Englishman had just asked them to illustrate what would become a charmingly eccentric book of Balinese fables (The Haughty Toad and Other Tales, by Victor Mason).

As the moon rose and his friends worked on by lantern light, the conversation became more metaphysical as he explained the symbolism behind the myths and legends they were painting. One of the painters ambled over to watch another at work and added a few touches of his own. I wondered how a western artist would have reacted to such an intrusion on his creation. In later years I would see this collective approach carried to its logical extreme, with several artists working simultaneously on one large canvas and signing it "Pengosekan Group."

By the mid-70s the cooperative was well established, but still hampered by the river, which daunted many would-be visitors, so Batuan moved the whole operation - and his home - across the ford to within 200 yards of Peliatan. Business boomed, and they started painting truly monumental canvasses of pulsating, multi-textured jungles populated by exotic birds of dubious descent. This would become known as the widely imitated "Pengosekan Style," but it was only one of Pengosekan's many new artistic directions.

Eventually, though, they discovered what artists the world over have found: that you cannot live by art alone - a painful fact particularly true in Bali, where sloppy imitations of paintings that should take six months to produce sell for a quarter the normal price;
and where a talented artist is responsible not only for his own survival, but that of his extended family and community as well.
Then came a visitor who would have a dramatic impact, first on Pengosekan and then on the entire Balinese art world.

The 'Bali-International' craft style

Designer Linda Garland - she of the flaming Irish hair and irrepressible creative energy - settled for awhile in the village. Undisputed doyen of a new "Bali-Inter national" style, she would soon be designing living spaces for the rich and famous in the Hampton, Europe and the Carribean. Pengosekan's only existing handicrafts, other than those produced for the temple and the gods, were baskets somewhat reminiscent of those from the American Southwest, but she suggested one day to Batuan: "Instead of spending months on a single painting, why don't you and the other talented artists do small watercolors and design appropriate wooden frames that your less skilled colleagues can execute and paint?"

That small beginning led to the colorful floral mirror frames, chests, wooden fruits, screens, Kleenex boxes and even toilet seats that can now be seen on every street-corner of Bali and in many western department stores (Pengosekan alone ships out at least one container load every month!).

The new industry brought undreamed of wealth, but it also created jealousies, tensions and financial imbalance. In the mid-80s the cooperative collapsed in acrimony. Those were terrible days for Pengosekan, and I am glad I was away editing Ring of Fire at the time. Neighbors stopped speaking, families broke up, stress-related diseases proliferated and at least one talented artist became clinically insane for more than a year. Indeed, it would have destroyed the entire village had their traditional Balinese sense of communalism been less deeply ingrained. Somehow they weathered the storm, and although they now act independently in business, they can again share affably in village affairs and present a genuinely united front at exhibitions. Everyone now agrees that the cooperative's fifteen years laid the groundwork for the future, and that its demise was an essential metamorphosis.

The artists today

Most paintings in Pengosekan today are merely decorative, quickly turned out and lacking that laboriously applied layering of colors and shading which gave the village fame. But some of the artists remain uncommon promised by commercial considerations. To devoting six months or more to one canvas. find these, you must search hard, be fortunate in your timing and prepared to pay, but hunt can be as rewarding as the acquisition.

Batuan still lives just east of the bridge near Peliatan. His burgeoning business in wooden fantasies, many of them one-offs giant painted parasols and carved four-poster beds (Ronnie and Nancy Reagan slept in one during their 1986 visit) - leaves him little time for painting, but he still has the largest cross-section of Pengosekan art on offer. Notable among them are those of his older brother, Dewa Putu Mokoh, whose subject matter ranges from village scenes to the downright lewd, but all display his unmistakable style and wicked sense of hum our. His awkward and seemingly clumsy relative Dewa Putu Putralaya, is anything but clumsy in his painting.

The most meticulous of all the artists, I have seen him work for more than a year to get one painting of three shells just right. Although he has never put his head underwater, he is best known for his enormous submarine-scrapes, which balance vibrant and light-hearted highlights against sinister dark corners dredged from the depths of his unfathomable mind. Unfortunately, Putra invariably falls in love with his latest painting, hiding it away from the eyes of prospective buyers. When an undaunted art lover discovers one of these, Putra puts an exorbitant price on it in the hopes that the visitor will go away.Some of the artists have impressive galleries on the road to Padangtegal, but for the best work you must corner them at home.

You might start about a third of the way down the main street at the compound of the brothers Gusti Ketut Kobot and Gusti Made Barat. These are the grand old man of Pengosekan art, with work dating back to the 1930s. Unfortunately, as Kobot is beginning to go blind and Barat has become a temple priest, you may not find any recent examples of their intricately crafted depictions Hindu of deities, but whenever the temple needs a new hanging or banner, it is they who are called upon to paint it.

Just south of them is the house Dewa Putu Sena, Mokoh's. He originally painted lavish scenes of temp1e ceremonies and cremations, and still does the occasional one, but is better known as the premier exponent of the "Pengosekan style." Beyond him and before the big banyan you will find the similarly named Sana who belongs to yet a third generation of artists. His temple-dancing frog maidens are as graceful as the gawking western photographers, motorcyclists and surfies are hilarious. His meticulous depictions of erotically entwined princes, princesses and deities make a good purchase for the bedroom wall. It is always a pleasure to visit Mokoh who lives a few houses away from the main street, east of the banyan tree.

For a walk on the darker side, you might look up Ketut Liyer, near the gorge to the east (behind Oka's Home stay which is down a path more or less opposite Kobot's house). Not quite sure if he is a healer or a magician, his neighbors jokingly call him Mangku Leyak after those magicians who can transmogrify into animals to go out and harm their enemies at night. He makes faithful copies in pen and ink of the magic figures and symbols in his old lontar palm-leaf books.

Many other fine and idiosyncratic artists should be mentioned here but cannot. There is one however, whom I can never overlook. Nearing the southern end of the village, in a crumbling compound on the left, lives the poorest and the laziest artist of Pengosekan.

Wayang Gatra produces some of the most remarkable and sought-after of all their paintings when he can bring himself to work on one. Islands and temples float through a vaporous sky escorted by waspish nymphs, and every rock, hill or tree reveals the dark spirit living within it. They say that whenever he does manage to complete and sell a painting, he disappears for a couple of days to Denpasar to dispose of the proceeds - with the help, I like to believe, of women and wine.

Back home

When I recently returned to Bali after a lengthy exile editing Ring of Fire, I took a long, hard look at Pengosekan to decide whether I still wanted to live here. With the tour buses racing along the main street, and with my neighbors' growing commercialism and passion for building cement block monstrosities in the rice fields, I had my doubts. But when Batuan, coming up with a new design idea, pounds his hands together with the same enthusiasm I remember from that first night almost 20 years ago; when Putralaya shuffles his feet uncomfortably and asks US$20,000 for a painting he is not yet ready to part with; and when the entire community bursts into laughter over some raunchy aside at the most solemn moment of a temple ceremony, I know that, although I shall never be one of them, these are my sort of people and Pengosekan is my home.


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