Wayan ‘Kun’ Adnyana and Balinese Art History

Wayan ‘Kun’ Adnyana arrived in the Balinese art world as part of the Kamasra group, young art students who in 2003 challenged the art world with a series of bold criticisms of commercialism. Kun Adnyana’s earlier activism was one of the first demonstrations of his deep concern for Balinese art and art history. His emergence as an artist was gradual, coming side-by-side with his development as an art historian. Kun Adnyana’s solo exhibitions in the last ten years have increasingly gained attention, to the point where he is beginning to overtake some of his peers from Kamasra in the eyes of Indonesian collectors. At the same time, he completed his PhD on the Pita Maha group (1936-1940), the association of modern Balinese artists who defined Balinese art for the world.

Building on his work on Pita Maha, Kun Adnyana has researched the deeper roots of Balinese art in theory and practice. The enigmatic reliefs of Yeh Pulu have long mystified art historians. Probably very ancient, the stories they depict may be from ancient Indian myths of Kreshna, but may equally be local inventions. The area from which they come, Bedulu, was the ancient capital of Bali before it was absorbed into the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit in the 14th century, giving us a likely date before which the carvings were created. They are of a piece with the famous Elephant Cave, Goa Gajah, also at Bedulu, and evidence a very long artistic tradition in the area, one which also led to modern paintings and the creation of Bali’s famous Kecak or Monkey Dance.

Yet there is no written record of Yeh Pulu’s creation, nor is the identification of the story with that of Kreshna an exact match. Instead, the main thing that is known of the Yeh Pulu reliefs in Bali is the association between the carvings out of rock and the mythological giant Kebo Iwa. Kebo Iwa has many such associations, and great works are linked to him: not just the Yeh Pulu carvings, but a carved stone door in the village of Jelantik, Klungkung, and other wonders from the core of Bali’s ancient villages. In some legends he came from Blahbatuh, an early centre of power; in other stories, he led the troops that fought against the Javanese invaders and was defeated by being buried in a well. The giant is further associated with the founding of craft traditions in Bali, particularly the work of undagi or architects. A giant statue at Sakah, between Denpasar and Ubud, is said by cultural experts to depict Kebo Iwa as a baby.

It is no coincidence, then, that Kun Adnyana’s work over the last decade has begun with figures of giants. The figurative tradition in Balinese art is a strong one, but in earlier decades was dominated by the influence of flat figures, based on the wayang kulit or shadow puppet play. One of the reasons that Kun Adnyana was drawn to Pita Maha was their turn towards rounded, sculptural figures. Viewed in that light, it was an obvious step to go back further in Balinese art history to the carvings of Yeh Pulu, which represent an alternative tradition in Bali.

In the early 21st century, Balinese art is in danger, yet again, of being overtaken by the commercial influence of tourism. In particular, much art in recent exhibitions is heavily mannered and overly sentimental. Kun Adnyana’s art is a muscular attempt to bring Bali back to its basic elements and to reshape Balinese art in the light of global encounters. For the recent series, entitled ‘Santarupa’ (‘In a New Form’), to be exhibited in Thienny Lee Gallery, Sydney, Australia, and Neka Art Museum, Ubud, Bali, Kun Adnyana has explored the Yeh Pulu reliefs using three approaches of contemporary narrative paintings: reframing, recasting and globalising. Thus, his work moves an ancient presence into contemporary global life.

Adrian Vickers is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Sydney. He is the author of many works on Indonesian cultural history and art, including Balinese Art: Paintings and Drawings 1800-2010 (Singapore: Tuttle, 2012). He also created the Virtual Museum of Balinese Painting www.balipaintings.org


Thienny Lee Gallery
25 July to 13 August 2019