The Artisans of Ubud

Words: Mark | Photographs: Johanna


Art of the Young. The Art of Everyone.

In Bali, the gentleman who offers to take us to our hotel from the airport asks me what we do for a living and I say we make art. He looks baffled but says nothing more. Only later, after having seen Ubud, did I realise that this was a  “well, doesn’t everybody?” look.

In Ubud, everyone is an artist, every village has mastered an art form. The skills and techniques are passed on from generation to generation, from a master to his students. The painters from Keliki for example, start very young and have apprentices as young as 7. They come after school and spend two hours a day under the tutelage of a painting master. In the beginning, the young ones can spend months doing rudimentary things like grinding pigments – it is only after a few months of apprenticeship that they actually are given the chance to draw or paint



The Keliki art form is a four-step process – only the painting master may start with a sketch, a skilled apprentice can follow through by inking the drawing (usually his first art task), then the drawings are shaded and the final step is the application of thin layers of acrylic paint for colour. The drawings are busy and are full of detail – Scenes from Hindu Epics and everyday Balinese life are common subject matters.






“Our art form is for the young,” I Wayan Gama, one of the painting masters tells us. He says that the intricate detail of each artwork can be hard on the eyes and hands, he admits that he himself can only spend up to three hours a day and then his eyes begin to strain. There is one painting here that took one year to make.


Wayan tells us that not everyone becomes a full-time painter.  Usually, traditional painters become masters when they are young and then they get day jobs when they are older. Fortunately for him, he is one of the few traditional Balinese painters who can live off his work.  His pieces in galleries usually sell for 15 million Rupiah (1300 USD). He also owns and runs a school that teaches the art form to young kids.

“The name of the village is Keliki and this form of art is also named Keliki”, he explains, showing us one of the intricate artworks done by a 9-year old.


The Carvers of Ubud





The recurring theme in all of the craft villages that we got to visit was that art is a way of life. It is part of a routine. In truth, they will say that it is part of their belief system. The crafts of the island were first done as offerings. “…Most of the sculptors are farmers. They come and sculpt in the afternoon,” one of the artisans said. And what magnificent work they do.



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I turn a log over on the ground and see numerous, intricate dragons swimming through the woodwork. There is a zoo of wooden animals in this place – birds, elephants, horses, pigs, yes even the pigs look beautiful. The scenes from religious stories still remain, of course, and they are often the grandest.


My favourites are the masks. Mysterious, colourful, even scary. In this village of Mas are mask makers who are considered legendary, whose facial cloaks are said to grant protection to the wearer from evil spirits.


Shadow Puppets




In 2003, UNESCO designated Wayan Kulit, a shadow puppet theatre and the best known of the Indonesian Wayang or Shadow Puppet Show, as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The Wayang is the most ancient form of puppet theatre in the world. It is said that the first record of a puppet show was in the year 930. The puppet masters in Bali and Java are in fact considered celebrities.


“Some of these puppets are over a hundred years old.” the puppet master W. Mardika tells us. He says some of the figures were done by his great grandfather. The shadow puppets in his shops are made of leather and the parts that are unwanted chiselled out so that the light can come through and give form to human bodies and faces.

Weavers and Batik Painters


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Coming from the Philippines, the hand weaving techniques that are used in Bali are very similar to traditional Filipino methods. We visited a textile workshop where weavers – mostly women – making articles of clothing, sashes, and sarongs. There were also a number of Batik painters – while it is traditionally a Javenese art form, it is also done in Bali.

An Island of Art


As we were leaving Ubud I could not help but be in awe of the Balinese people’s devotion and artistry – where villages are known for their art and that every Balinese person that we met practiced some form of craft. And they do it not because they earn tons of money from it – although I am sure some do – but mostly because it is ingrained in their lives. Their love of art is most beautiful.

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