If you’re a male artist wanting to make it big in Bali, there’s one art gallery that will never accept your work no matter how talented you are. Not now, not ever. You’re just not their type.
The Seniwati Gallery of Art for Women has an all-female staff and an atmosphere more cosy than that of Ubud’s other galleries, but the main thing that sets it apart is that it only features the work of women artists.
When I met her on a recent visit to the island, gallery founder and director Mary Northmore told me why women artists in Bali needed an art gallery specially for themselves.
“Balinese women artists are invisible,” she said, quite simply.
Mary should know what she’s talking about – she used to be an English teacher in Hong Kong but she’s lived in Bali for the past 27 years and is the widow of the celebrated Indonesian artist Abdul Aziz.“The reason I first got involved was because of my husband’s work and because we lived in Ubud. I thought it would be nice to meet some women artists, so I started looking for them,” she said.
With the help of her late husband, Mary met two Balinese art experts in the hope they would introduce her to some women artists. The men made two comments which she remembers to this day.
“What they said was unbelievable. One of them told me: “Oh, there aren’t any women artists here. Balinese women have no sense of colour”. The other man said, “Balinese women don’t like to get their hands dirty”.
“I found that unacceptable, there had to be local women who could paint, I thought.”She decided to look for these artists herself and eventually discovered some after visiting a few villages. The next question was- where would they exhibit their art?
“My husband owned some property next to his studio and I asked him whether they could use it to show their work. He was very sweet and gave it to me on condition that I cleaned it. He’d had the property for 30-odd years and never cleaned it!”
Setting up the gallery in 1991 was surprisingly easy. The local community was open to the idea and Abdul Aziz was particularly encouraging. “He always made sure I had enough money for the gallery. He was wonderfully supportive. Having studied with women at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, he knew how important equality was.”
Mary’s work in Bali hasn’t gone unnoticed. On June 22 of this year, she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire at an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
Seniwati Gallery was the last I visited in a string of art museums and showrooms in Ubud. The paintings were refreshing, exuded warmth and – if art can be described as such – not intimidating. Mary said that was probably because women paint differently from men. “They never portray themselves as sexual objects. They paint subjects like nature, motherhood, children, pregnancy. These are things which a man can never understand and therefore, paint.
“Their art is also easily understood; they paint straightforward things. It’s great to look at a painting and understand immediately what the artist was thinking.”
Seniwati (made up to two words: ‘seni’- art and ‘wati’- women) isn’t just a gallery, it’s also an art academy of sorts. Every year, 40
schoolgirls are selected to join their annual art workshops.
“The girls are happy just being able to paint. The locals are also caught up with the whole thing. They take notice when their girls win art competitions. They come up to me and say “Ibu Mary, my niece is in your workshop”, and they say it with so much pride. That surely must mean that things are changing.”
The happiest spot in the gallery is the foyer where the children’s paintings hang. The paintings are colourful, vibrant and full of minute details – the batik print on a mother’s sarong, the checks in a father’s shirt and the different shades of green in a rice field. Few visitors leave unimpressed when they find out that the gallery’s youngest artist is only six years old.
Does Mary plan to return to England?
“No, there’s no hope that I would settle down there! I decided that a long time ago. My family loved my husband, their only regret was that we lived so far away. I do go back to England to see the family, but Bali is so much more enriching. This is home now,” she said, sinking contentedly into her sofa. So the next time you find yourself in Ubud, Bali, ask for directions to Ibu Mary’s place. Chances are you’ll find a proud parent, uncle or aunt more than willing to bring you there.
Where in Bali? SENIWATI Gallery of Art by Women is open daily (except Mondays) from 10am-5pm and is situated at Jalan Sriwedari 2B, Banjar Taman, Ubud, Bali.
Except for the gallery’s permanent art collection, items available for sale include paintings, calendars, bookmarks and umbrellas. For details, contact 0361-975485 (phone & fax) or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the gallery’s website here.
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