Art as Offering: Exploring Creative Culture in Ubud

Last Updated on: 18th July 2018, 05:42 pm

"Whatever you do, make it an offering to me."

– Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita (9:27)

Offerings are everywhere in Bali. Visitors to the island often have a hard time not accidentally crushing the little baskets of fruit, betel nut and palm leaf placed all over the sidewalks. Elaborate offerings of fruit are presented to the gods at temple festivals, while even the lesser gods or demons might receive offerings in the form of rotten meat.

Not all offerings are presented in the form of food, plants or incense, however. In Bali, actions themselves can be considered offerings, and perhaps none more so than creative endeavors. Blessed with fertile soil and beautiful landscapes, the Balinese have traditionally spent their free time producing works of beauty as a way to give thanks to the gods that created their island.

From traditional dance and gamelan to wood carving and paintings, pretty much every aspect of Balinese culture is pulsating with creativity. And when it comes to experiencing Bali’s rich and distinct style of visual arts, there’s no better place to go than the inland town of Ubud.

Bali Canang Sari
'Canang sari' offering baskets outside of a temple

An Introduction to Balinese Painting Styles

Ubud Style

What’s now known as the ‘Ubud Style’ of painting was greatly influenced by European artists Walter Spies and Rudolf Bonnet (see more below). Previously, much of Bali’s paintings were done in the style of Indonesian shadow puppetry. Not only did the characters resemble the puppets themselves, but like puppet theater, the scenes of the paintings were taken from the great Hindu epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

As the Ubud style of painting emerged, more and more works started to focus on scenes from everyday Balinese life. The paintings also started to become increasingly realistic and colorful. The most dramatic stylistic shift occurred in the 1930’s. Not only did influential foreign painters move to the island, but Balinese artists also gained new access to imported paper, in addition to new inks and paints.

Ubud style paintings at the Neka Art Museum

Batuan Style

'The Bull Fights the Lion' by Ida Bagus Made Togog

Batuan is a village in Bali that’s just about a 25 minute drive away from Ubud. The painting style that developed in the area is distinct for its incredible detail. The paintings often depict scenes from Balinese religious rituals as well as local folklore and mythology. This is probably partly due to the town’s high number of priests.

Many Batuan style paintings are rather dark, almost resembling an under-exposed photograph. That fact, along with the intricate details of the works, means that most of these paintings need to be looked at up-close to really appreciate.

Keliki Kuan Style

Nearby both Ubud and Batuan is the small village of Keliki Kuan. The artists here have fused together Ubud and Batuan styles – combining the vibrant colors of Ubud Style paintings with the intricate details from Batuan.

The paintings themselves are often done on small pieces of paper (often around 16 x 12cm), which is why the Keliki Kuan Style is often referred to as ‘Balinese miniaturist style.’ Despite their small size, each painting typically takes an artist months to complete.

Keliki Kuan Painting at Puri Lukisan
A special Keliki Kuan exhibition at Museum Puri Lukisan

Other Styles

A gallery of 'Young Artist Style' paintings at the Neka Art Museum

Other prominent Balinese painting styles include the Sanur Style, originating in the eastern coastal town of Sanur. Paintings from Sanur typically depicted the colorful ocean and sea creatures of the immediate surroundings.

Another influential area is the village of Kamasan, just south of Klungkung in eastern Bali. The Kamasan Style was one of the original styles in Bali and Kamasan paintings, going back to the 12th century, often depict scenes from the great Hindu epics.

One of the more recent trends is the Young Artist Style, developed by Dutch artist Arie Smit in the 1960’s. This is a more colorful, playful style that was popular with tourists to the island at the time. 

Ubud: An Artist's Paradise Created

The area known as Ubud was historically a collection of a dozen or so quiet villages. Today, in contrast, these villages now surround a bustling tourist hotspot centered at Monkey Forest Rd. – a busy town center full of backpacker hostels and international restaurants.

What not many visitors to the island realize is that Ubud’s emergence as a popular tourist and creative center mostly happened by design. The local ruling family, in addition to prominent local and foreign artists, decided that traditional Balinese arts and culture could best be preserved by choosing one central location in which to protect and promote them.

While the Ubud area already had a rich artistic heritage and unique painting style, one cannot overlook the importance of the foreign artists who lived there in the 1930’s. Walter Spies, Rudolf Bonnet and their group the Pitamaha Artist Cooperative, are largely responsible for why Ubud is still considered to be Bali’s creative mecca to this day.

Walter Spies

Walter Spies, Ubud, Bali

Walter Spies, a Russian-born German national, was born in 1895. Talented at both painting and music, he left Berlin in 1923 to explore the Far East. He settled in the Javanese city of Yogyakarta, where he was asked by the Sultan to conduct a local orchestra. Spies was eventually encouraged to visit Bali after meeting a prince from Ubud at the Sultan’s palace. He ended up settling there permanently in 1927.

Spies spent nine years living in Ubud before moving to Iseh, near the base of Bali’s largest mountain, Gunung Agung.

Fascinated with Balinese art and culture, he eventually became one of the prominent foreign experts on Bali. He was often sought out by other foreign visitors to the island and even hosted celebrities like Charlie Chaplin.

Spies, along with Rudolf Bonnet, was hugely influential on the local painting scene of Ubud and is still greatly revered by local painters to this day. Spies not only helped introduce a wider range of colors to the local palette, but he also imported certain types of canvas and brushes that locals had not seen before.

Stylistically, he introduced new techniques involving light, shadow and perspective that were widely used by painters in Europe.

Spies is even credited with coming up with the choreography for the “Kecak Dance,” also known as the Balinese monkey chant. Notably, the Balinese seem perfectly fine with the fact that one of their most well-known cultural performances, not to mention modern-day painting styles, have largely been influenced and innovated by a foreigner. 

Spies, a German national, was suddenly treated as an enemy of the Dutch colonial government after the Germans took over Holland in 1940. After being imprisoned on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, he was to be transferred over to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) with other German prisoners. On the way there, the boat was struck by a Japanese torpedo boat and all of the prisoners were left to drown.

Pitamaha Artist Cooperative

Rudolf Bonnet Puri Lukisan

Along with Walter Spies, another influential foreign artist to make a splash on the Balinese art scene of the 1930’s was Rudolf Bonnet. The Dutch artist lived in Ubud from 1929 to 1940 and influenced the local artists along with Spies, especially in regards to portraiture. Spies and Bonnet would then go on to be cofounders of an influential organization known as ‘Pitamaha.’

The Pitamaha Artist Cooperative (also written as Pita Maha) was founded in 1936 by Spies, Bonnet, Tjokorda Gde Agung Sukawati (King of Ubud) and the king’s brother Tjorkada Gde Raka.

The cooperative was formed in order to preserve Bali’s cultural and artistic heritage, while also presenting the best the island had to offer to the outside world. The cooperative had 125 members and regularly held overseas exhibitions to promote Balinese art.

Disrupted by World War II, something called the Ubud Painters Group followed in its footsteps. This group was founded by Rudolf Bonnet, Tjokorda Gde and Agung Sakawati –  the same members of Pitamaha minus Walter Spies, who had died during the war.

The group didn’t last long, though, and many expressed the need for a permanent museum to showcase Balinese art to both foreigners and locals. This led to the creation of Ubud’s first permanent art museum, Puri Lukisan.

After the creation of Puri Lukisan, several more prominent museums would also be established in Ubud over the next several decades. To this day, the town remains the best place in Bali to become acquainted with Balinese artwork of all styles and eras.

Though I have yet to read the entire book myself, Bali: A Paradise Created by Adrian Vickers provides a detailed account of how Western artists greatly contributed to the development of the Balinese arts as we know them today.

Exploring Art in Ubud

If you’re a fan of traditional Balinese artwork, the three museums that you can’t miss are ARMA, Puri Lukisan and the Neka Art Museum.

The Komaneka Art Gallery, on the other hand, is a great example of the more abstract and contemporary style evolving on the island. Meanwhile, the Blanco Renaissance Museum is centered around portraits of Balinese women all drawn by the same eccentric artist.

To see the art spaces mentioned below, give yourself at least a couple days in Ubud, and even more than that if you want to check out all the other sightseeing options the town has to offer. Use the map below to help guide you around the area.

ARMA: Agung Rai Museum of Art

The Agung Rai Museum of Art, or ARMA for short, was established in 1996, but its roots date back far longer than that. Agung Rai, the museum’s founder, grew up poor and struggled for years as an aspiring artist. He eventually discovered that he had more of a knack for collecting and dealing his colleagues’ paintings than as a painter himself.

Throughout the 1970’s, he supported himself by selling paintings to tourists in the beach town of Kuta. After becoming acquainted with a number of foreign artists, he wanted to take them to the creative hotspot of Ubud, but almost no tourist infrastructure existed at the time – a fact almost unimaginable to modern-day visitors!

In the early 70’s, Agung Rai decided to convert some of the rooms in his Ubud home into guest rooms to host foreigners visiting the island. Later in 1978, after having amassed a large collection of paintings, he formed the Agung Rai Fine Art Gallery, a gallery which can still be visited right by ARMA. Over the years, Agung Rai has become recognized as an ambassador of Balinese culture, introducing the island’s philosophy and mysticism to the outside world, while also helping foreign artists hold exhibitions on the island.

ARMA Garden Bali

Entrance to the garden

Traditional Balinese Puppets

In 1996, after years of planning and saving, Agung Rai was finally able to start ARMA, a true “holistic living museum,” spread out over five hectares. The museum showcases not only creative works but also the natural beauty of the island, as its founder sees little distinction between the two. In addition to the large galleries, ARMA contains a traditional Balinese garden, a restaurant, a local temple and even a resort.

The collection of paintings one can find at ARMA is fantastic. The museum displays Balinese paintings in chronological order so that visitors can observe the development of style over time, in addition to variations of style between different towns. 

In addition to local artists, special attention is also given to foreign artists who worked and lived in Bali, such as Walter Spies, Rudolf Bonnet and Willem Gerard Hofker. The two main structures which house the paintings, meanwhile, are built in a traditional Balinese architectural style using local materials. 

Around the Compound

After taking my time walking through ARMA’s main galleries, observing the rich collection of paintings and other cultural artifacts, I decided to have a coffee and small bite to eat at the local restaurant. Seated nearby me was a local man who introduced himself as the head gardener. I’d completely overlooked the garden and would’ve probably missed it had he not mentioned it to me. A friendly and interesting man, we discussed all sorts of topics related to art, Bali and Southeast Asia in general (the restaurant, in fact, specializes in Thai food).

Traditional Balinese Garden
The museum's own rice field
Balinese Garden Statue
Statue in the garden

After my meal I went on to explore the garden, spending nearly as much time there as I had inside the galleries themselves. In addition to the statues and ponds one might expect to find at a Balinese garden, ARMA even features its very own rice paddy. Rice, of course, is a vital staple food in Bali, and images of rice paddies can be found all throughout traditional paintings.

"The land is where people live and work in harmony with nature and gods to whom all art is an offering."

– The ARMA visitors’ brochure

I later learned that the friendly gardener I’d sat down to lunch with was none other than Agung Rai himself! Telling visitors to the compound that he’s merely the “head gardener” is apparently something he often does. Even before realizing that I’d met the museum’s founder, though, ARMA stood out for me the most from all the art spaces I visited in Bali. ARMA simply does the best job at integrating traditional Balinese scenery and nature with a fantastic collection of art – a collection that would already be outstanding on its own.

Puri Lukisan

Puri Lukisan, first opened in 1956, is the oldest of the major art museums in Ubud. It was started after many expressed the need for a permanent showcase of Balinese art following the collapse of the Pitamaha Artist Cooperative and its successor, the Ubud Painters Group.

Rudolf Bonnet was a member of both of these groups, and it was in fact a generous donation from his private collection which kicked off Puri Lukisan.

The museum soon grew thanks to more donations from collectors and artists, and Puri Lukisan also began purchasing artwork of its own. The museum expanded in the early ’70’s when two new wings and an exhibition hall were added. As recently as 2011, another exhibition hall and cafe were added to the complex.

Puri Lukisan Bali
Ceremonial Day for Weapons, I Nyoman Meja, 1975
Ceremonial Day for Weapons, I Nyoman Meja, 1975

Compared to the other large collections in Ubud, the museum feels slightly dated. But it is, of course, Ubud’s very first museum, and is accordingly home to an excellent collection of both paintings and wood carvings.  Puri Lukisan should be of special interest to those wanting to see more of the development of Balinese artistic styles which emerged out of the 1930’s.

During my visit there was even a special exhibition taking place focusing on the miniaturist art from the village of Keliki Kuan.

Puri Lukisan’s collection of art is divided among several buildings with a calming green garden at the center of it all. This is another example of the strong emphasis the Balinese place on the interrelation between art and nature.

Puri Lukisan, Ubud

The Neka Art Museum

Neka Art Museum, Ubud, Bali

The Neka Art Museum was founded by a man named Suteja Neka, a former school teacher. After seeing some Balinese art on display while visiting museums in Europe, he wondered why there were so few places to see such artwork in Bali itself. That’s when he decided to create a new permanent home for Balinese artwork in Ubud.

Construction of the Neka Art Museum began in 1976 and was finally completed in 1982. The museum started with artworks from Suteja Neka’s own private collection.

Contemporary works on display at Neka

The Neka museum’s main focus is Bali, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of the artists displayed are Balinese. The main criteria is that Bali must be the subject of the work. Throughout the museum, you can see works by artists from all around Indonesia in addition to foreign artists who were inspired by Bali and its people.

Compared to the other major museums in Ubud, the Neka Museum also gives special attention to some more recent abstract and experimental artists that are making names for themselves in the local arts scene.

The museum is also home to dozens of Indonesian keris, or daggers, which have been a major part of Balinese rituals for centuries. Keris are sharp, curved daggers which are meant to symbolize water in their appearance.

The museum is also home to dozens of Indonesian keris, or daggers, which have been a major part of Balinese rituals for centuries. Keris are sharp, curved daggers which are meant to symbolize water in their appearance.

The Komaneka Art Gallery

Komaneka Art Gallery, located on Monkey Forest Road, is an excellent space for those wishing to get a glimpse of the contemporary art scene of Ubud. Almost all the pieces in the space are recent works by present-day artists such as Made Djirna.

One exception is the Affandi painting on the first floor. Though he never lived in Bali, Affandi is a highly important figure in the Indonesian modern art world as a whole, and today his own museum can be visited in the central Java City of Yogyakarta.  

The two-storied gallery is sleek and spacious, and I happened to be the only person there during my visit. While not incredibly well-known in comparison to Ubud’s larger museums, Komaneka is definitely worth a visit for a fresh look at where Ubud’s creative culture may be headed. It was actually started by a man named Koman Wahyu Suteja who is the son of the founder of the Neka Museum.

The gallery is not just restricted to modern Balinese artists alone. Artists from other Indonesian cities or foreign countries are sometimes displayed here, provided that they have some kind of ties to the island. In addition to being a gallery, Komaneka also operates as a hotel.

Komaneka Art Gallery, Bali

Komaneka is centrally located and can easily be reached on foot from either the Monkey Forest or Ubud Palace. The gallery space is free and accessible to anyone.

Blanco Renaissance Museum

The Blanco Renaissance Museum is the former mansion and studio of painter Don Antonio Blanco. Born in Manila of Catalan origin, Blanco first arrived in Bali in 1952 while traveling around Asia and the South Pacific. He fell in love with the island, and also with a local dancer named Ni Rondji. He then decided to settle permanently in Ubud.

While traditional Balinese art often focuses on the beauty of the local landscape, Don Antonio Blanco instead focused on the beauty of the local Balinese women. The entire museum consists of nude portraits, as the artist believed that the female form was God’s greatest artistic creation.

The works are done in a European style that has little in common with traditional Balinese or Ubud Style paintings. This just goes to show what a wide range of artists the town has attracted over the years.

One of the main highlights of the museum is the building itself. The extravagant mansion and the garden around it are fun to walk around, and you can even see some tropical birds outside.

Though the main theme of the art here is nude women, the content doesn’t get particularly obscene, except for just one of the smaller rooms that’s separate from the main galleries. It’s up to you whether or not to bring your children.

The Miniaturist at Campuhani Ridge

After my visit to the Puri Lukisan museum, I headed over to the nearby Campuhani Ridge, one of Ubud’s most popular scenic walks. At the end of the trail I arrived at an area full of shops and restaurants when I noticed a sign with a familiar name. The sign was for a gallery run by a miniaturist painter from the Keliki Kuan village. Coincidentally, I had just come from a special Keliki Kuan exhibition at Puri Lukisan only moments before.

The artist running the shop is named Surana, one of the prominent veteran artists from Keliki Kuan. He now runs this little store in Ubud where he sells his own artwork in addition to pieces by his students.

I Wayan Surana has been painting his trademark miniaturist style for decades, and was even declared a national artist of Indonesia. While at his gallery, he proudly showed me his medal and certificate granted to him by then-prime minister.

As I walked around the small gallery, I took my time looking at the intricate details of the paintings. Though I’d just seen similar work at the museum, it still fascinated me. Most of the artwork seemed to revolve around Balinese rituals or Hindu mythology. “Folklore and mythology are where most Balinese painters get their inspiration,” Surana told me.

Miniature Sketch Ubud
A pencil sketch: the beginnings of a miniaturist painting
Surana Miniaturist Painting Bali
A completed painting next to various tools

Though I didn’t intend to purchase any artwork during my trip, largely due to luggage constraints, one piece in particular caught my eye. It was a depiction of the traditional Balinese Barong dance, in which the lion-like hero Barong battles the evil witch Rangda. It also happened to be the perfect size to bring back home, so I went ahead and made the purchase. 

Surana explained that this one little painting took him months to create. Thinking it was made only recently, I was surprised when he told me that he “painted it back in 1988, when I was still a high school student.” Surana even gave me a brief explanation of how each painting is created. “I start with pencil for the basic outline, then I use acrylic ink combined with these special small tools,” he said, referring to the tools on his table.

Keliki Kuan Artwork
The artist and his work

Though I’ve been a fan of Balinese artwork for years, getting to meet one of Bali’s prominent painters really opened my eyes to the work and dedication that goes into each piece.

To find Surana’s gallery, simply complete the Campuhani Ridge walk or if you’re coming from another direction, use the map above for reference.

Additional Info

Ubud is probably the most visited town in Bali that doesn’t have a beach. The city center features all sorts of accommodation options for different budgets, especially along Monkey Forest Road and nearby side streets.

Many people tire quickly of the city center, however, with its constant traffic and noise. Therefore, more and more visitors these days are looking for places to stay just a little bit out of town, such as in Pejeng or Bedulu. Most of the art spaces mentioned in this article are located in what would be considered as central Ubud, so choosing where to stay should also have a large part to do with how you plan to get around Ubud.

I stayed at a place called Kenari House which I would highly recommend. It’s located in between the town center and the eastern suburb of Bedulu, home to the Goa Gajah caves. It’s within walking distance of ARMA but a little bit far to reach the other museums without a vehicle.

Kenari House features private rooms inside of a family compound, so you can enjoy your privacy while also getting a glimpse of local Balinese family life. You can also eat a delicious breakfast each morning while looking out at a fantastic view of the local rice paddies.

If your budget allows it, you might also want to look into staying at ARMA itself.

Other Options:

Ubud, like most of Bali, lacks much of any type of public transport. To many visitors’ dismay, ridesharing services are also banned on this part of the island. While you can technically use the apps, there’s a high chance your driver will be very late or won’t show up at all out of fear of getting caught by the local taxi mafia.

Therefore, for distances too far to walk, your options for getting around this part of Bali will either be renting your own motorbike or hiring a driver. Many people do fine on a motorbike, but accidents are also very common amongst tourists. It’s not unusual to see people walking around with casts or crutches due to accidents, though most of the serious accidents seem to happen in the Kuta area rather than Ubud.

Regular taxis are greatly overpriced due to the lack of competition. Though not cheap, the best option may be hiring a private driver for the day, which you can arrange for roughly $40 USD a day. You can then ask him to take you to some of spots you want to visit in central Ubud before heading on to other parts of the island.

If you stay relatively close to the center, the museums listed above can be reached on foot, but then you may want to hire a taxi back to your accommodation.

Bali only has one airport, which is located in the capital and largest city of Denpasar. The best way to reach your accommodation in Ubud from the airport would be via taxi, which can be arranged for around Rp. 300,000 or even a little bit less. Your hotel or host will likely be able to send a driver to meet you at the airport, which can save some of the hassle of trying to negotiate after a long flight. Expect the drive to take roughly an hour.

If you’re coming to Ubud from another part of Bali, you might want to look into a private tour company such as Perama Tour to arrange a shuttle bus for you.

The most common way to reach Bali is by plane. The Ngurah Rai International Airport in Denpasar is very well connected. You can find direct flights from all over Indonesia, in addition to plenty of international cities throughout Asia and even Europe.

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