Ketut Teja Astawa’s bright, bold acrylic-on-canvas paintings are complex and humorous. Using traditional Balinese style, iconography, and language, Astawa reinvents the ancient wayang (or shadow puppet) tradition within a modern context. He imbues his painted narratives with references to everyday problems, such as fruit shortages, aggressive village birds, and even the 2002 Bali bombings.
While Astawa’s exaggerated figurative paintings and humorous narrative style are unique to him, the way in which he fuses the traditional with the contemporary is markedly Balinese. In his book Balinese Art, cultural historian Adrian Vickers notes that in Bali, “tradition… does not mean an absence of change, and individual expression comes from the manipulation of pre-set forms.” It is in Astawa’s very manipulation of such pre-set, established styles and iconography that his artistic gift and interest lies. I was lucky to meet with Ketut Teja Astawa (and receive translation assistance from Sudipa Yasa) at the Tonyraka Art Gallery in Mas, Ubud.
Ellen Caldwell: How did you start painting, and what got you started with your art?
Ketut Teja Astawa: I started painting ten years ago [at the] Denpasar School for Art.
EC: Had you painted before that or just started in school?
KTA: I started from childhood, when I was seven years old, maybe.
EC: Did anyone in your family also paint or teach you?
KTA: No, just me. The others make buildings and they are carpenters, Bali-style. My father is a farmer and my mother has a small arts shop.
EC: And so did your mother then encourage you with painting, or did you learn more in school later?
KTA: It was really me. All by myself.
EC: Your style is really different from other painting you see around here…
KTA: Good, good. My step is to make paintings like puppets [wayang tradition], but I don’t always start with the puppet. It develops from there, from the traditional, local Kamasan style near Klungkung [a nearby city, renowned for its Balinese-style painting tradition named after the painting village Kamasan].
EC: So this style influenced your work?
KTA: Yes, I take inspiration from Kamasan style and take a little bit from the Ubud traditional style.
EC: Did you study this style, or did you try to learn the Kamasan style before you started your bigger paintings?
KTA: Yes, I learned the Kamasan first.
EC: It’s like you zoom in on characters in that sense—you have these huge paintings, but then only one or two figures in most… Maybe you can tell me a little bit about your process too, then, how you start a painting or if you’ve planned it out. What are your steps when you start a new painting?
KTA: My process is free. The concepts are from Bali—the compositions are from Bali, so they are Balinese concepts.
EC: Do you retell some of the same stories, the Balinese stories and Hindu epics [referenced in the Kamasan paintings], in your paintings, or is it more just that you use a similar style in your paintings?
KTA: It’s a sample of the stories… I take examples from the two big stories [the most popular Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata] but still use the Bali style. I start with the storyline but then build out from there.
EC: Yes, when I saw your work, it seems to be humorous, like you are telling a joke a little bit too. Am I reading that right or no?
KTA: This [he points to his painting Rekreasi di Danau, 2010] is from a story of a king and queen during a time of war. Here is the assistant following behind on a separate boat.
EC: Yes, some of those little details in your paintings make me laugh… like when there will be a little saying outside of someone’s head, like the little text boxes that you see. I find a lot of humor in it. Like the title of your painting Fruit Problems, you know? Have you always taken that humorous approach too, where you are adding your own take on the story?
KTA: Yeah, like Fruit Problems—in the jungle we had a fire and now have bad fruit quality or scarcity, and it’s a fruit problem.
EC: So that was from an actual event that inspired that painting and title?
KTA: Exactly, so I take a real modern problem and add humor.
Astawa’s canvases feature a comic-like aesthetic consisting of outlined figures and two-dimensional, flattened perspective. He incorporates the traditional wayang-style painting conventions throughout, using precise details such as shape and shading of natural forms or popular characters from the Hindu epic Ramayana. He also infuses his paintings with iconography from the wayang tradition; if he wants to indicate that a figure is an important member of the royal family, then he uses an established symbol, such as a signifying headpiece, that would visually indicate this.
But unlike the traditional style, Astawa magnifies some of these central characters so that they are disproportionally larger than others, though sometimes the smaller characters on the periphery of the paintings are just as important as the magnified main figures. In paintings like Pertempuran Raja, (trans. Battle Royal), Astawa places the battle scene in the middle ground and reverses conventional perspective, making the soldier in the foreground much smaller. This soldier is labeled “prajurit galau,” or “troubled soldier” in Astawa’s neatly looped cursive. Astawa often steps in to give the viewer cues and jokes–labeling and calling out both useful and satirical characteristics and scenic details along the way. This resizing of central and peripheral figures causes a disjuncture, making the act of reading his paintings more of a detective game wherein the viewers collect clues along the way. Astawa’s paintings are a triple threat in this respect: They make you laugh and think–and they are also just really gorgeous.
Ketut Teja Astawa was born in Tuban, southern Bali, in 1971. He graduated from the Indonesian College of Fine Arts, or Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia (STSI), in Denpasar in 1990, and has been in solo and group exhibitions internationally including Bali, Jakarta, Singapore, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Beijing. Astawa lives and works in Sanur and is represented by Tonyraka Art Gallery in Mas, Ubud.
Ellen C. Caldwell is an L.A.-based art historian, editor, and writer.