Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Balinese Woodcarvings-The Legend of Gold from Dead Wood

No. 07/VII/Oct 17 - 23, 2006
Tempo Magazine, Economy & Business

Woodcarvers in Bali have a poor standard of living even though their works of art are worth tens of millions of rupiah.

DURING the last three years, I Made Gara has spent much of his time under the hot sun. The palms of the hands of this 53-year-old woodcarver from Desa Mas (literally meaning Golden Village) are really worn out because he has used his carving tools too many times. “Since the bombings, all we’ve had to eat are bills,” he told Tempo last week.

The 2002 Bali bombings—followed by the 2005 Bali bombings—have meant that Gara has had to seek work as a laborer in his neighbor’s rice fields. There are no longer any tourists or tourism guides wanting to view the woodcarvings that he has created. According to the records of the local tourism office, the total of tourists has dropped by 30 percent and the situation has not yet improved.

The livelihoods of the people of Desa Mas are threatened. In this village located 20 kilometers to the north of Denpasar, the capital city of Bali, 95 percent of the villagers work as woodcarvers. The remainder of them left to look for work or have become civil servants. “We were doomed to become carvers,” said I Wayan Mudana, 50, appropriately.

Just like Gara, the carvings of Mudana are now gathering dust in his workshop. In fact, it’s fair to say that the “fate” of Mudana is better than that of his fellow student—both of them were students of Ida Bagus Tilem, the maestro of Balinese woodcarving.

His home has two stories and is considered to be one of the largest in the village. When asked about this, Mudana just smiled. Apparently, this house is “left over” from the good times in the 1980s when people from many different countries were hunting down his woodcarvings.

In 1986, a German tourist invited Mudana to hold an exhibition in his country. And eight of his works of art were exhibited at the National German Museum. He no longer bothered to take part in local exhibitions. Mudana would go to and from Jakarta and Bali in a month.

Since then people started hunting down his works of art. However, he knew that they were not buyers who wanted to collect pieces of art. They were the owners of galleries in Ubud.

The growth in the tourism sector at the beginning of the 1990s meant that investors set up several galleries full of works of art. Woodcarvings became the favorite and best selling works of art. The carvers were happy.

This attitude began to change however when they found out that their carvings were being sold off for 10 times more than they had been paid. Gara was shocked when he discovered that a 3-foot-high carving that he had created over a period of eight months was sold to a foreign tourist for Rp100 million. “This was in spite of the fact that I sold it for only Rp10 million,” he said.

However, Gara was not able to break off his relationships with the guides and the gallery owners. “They had money, I just had to accept the situation,” he said. He had no choice because he had four children plus the workers who helped him to take into consideration. Mudana, who refused to deal with galleries, had to accept that his works of art were just going to end up gathering dust.

Research by Lin Che Wei, the Managing Director of PT Danareksa, now clearly indicates that the artists have not enjoyed the cycle of business of wooden carvings in Desa Mas. Three months ago he visited several galleries in order to find out the price of each woodcarving. He paid visits to almost all the gallery owners, large and small.

The result is that the galleries and tourist guides obtain 50 percent profit on each work of art. “The guides work together with the galleries in order to attract the tourists,” he said.

As an example, he cited a carving, Dewi Sri Landung, by Mudana. This 3-meter-high carving was sold for Rp100 million. This was in spite of the fact that Mudana sold this highly crafted and detailed carving for a price of only Rp30 million.

What takes the longest time in creating a carving, said Mudana, is coming up with the idea. This former student of the maestro Tilem is well-known because of his unique style in creating carvings that follow the shape and the grain of the wood. “The wood grain is already unique and special,” he said.

The carving of Dewi Sri, according to Mudana, had to be in harmony with the legend of the wife of Dewa who was cursed to become a snake but who then helped farmers by guarding their paddy fields. Mudana worked on this creation for a total of 14 months and had eight people helping him cut wood in his studio. Total costs, including transportation, amounted to Rp8 million. Once this was completed, the carving had to be smoothed down and varnished. Mudana paid Rp100,000 per day to the varnishers.

Gus Putra, owner of the Bramastya Gallery, said that working together with tourist guides was a way of gallery owners being able to stay in business. He acknowledged that he paid as much as 60 percent commission to guides. This is why the selling price of a carving can be as much as 10 times as high as the purchase price. “In fact, it’s a bit like suicide,” he said.

Tourists already know the real sales price. They are reluctant to offer more than half price. Foreign tourists, according to Putra, already know standard prices back in their home countries and know that this is five times the price paid to the carver.

Tourist guides deny that they enjoy the lion’s shares of the profits. If they really had been receiving as much as 60 percent commission, said Yeremias Tasi, Chairman of the Tourist Guides Association of Bali, “Then we would have been rich a very long time ago.” According to him, at the very most, the commission from the galleries is 30 percent of the total sales price.

It is this long chain, according to Che Wei, that makes the bargaining power of artists even worse. He decided to do something about it. When he became the host of the Emerging Markets Forum, between September 20-27 this year, Che Wei urged Gara, Mudana and I Wayan Darlun to bring all their carvings to Jakarta and put them on exhibition.

Every developing nation delegate at the forum that was held at the Danareksa Building was greeted by carvings of human legends in several poses, including: Rama, Shita, Kala Rau, Dewi Sri and Men Brayut. Fidel Ramos, former President of the Philippines, and Michel Camdessus, former executive director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), were astonished to see so many carvings on the first floor of the Danareksa Building.

One day before the exhibition closed, underneath 20 of the carvings on exhibit were cards on which had been written the word “reserved.” Minister of Finance Sri Mulyani, Minister of Trade Mari Pangestu and several other officials were among those interested in the carvings. All of them were discounted by 30 percent.

Seeing this enthusiasm, Che Wei became even more interested in Balinese woodcarvings. In fact, as a state company, Danareksa has a responsibility to help develop small- and medium-scale enterprises. He flew to Singapore, London, Amsterdam and New York in order to introduce Balinese woodcarvings and to try and set up exhibition schedules.

“I was inspired by a book by John Cost, which was called Dancing Out of Bali,” said this economist who made his name when he exposed the Lippo Bank scandal in 2000. Cost, he said, was able to promote Balinese dancing in London and New York in 1950.

In addition to arranging exhibitions, Danareksa will also set standard prices for each carving calculated from the cost of production and the original idea, as well as the copyright. In Bali, anyone can copy someone else’s work of art without fear of being prosecuted for plagiarism. And they succeed.

In the exhibition, Mudana was able to enjoy the correct prices for his works of art. Dewi Sri sold for Rp125 million. This was the most expensive, compared to the other carvings, which were sold on average for between Rp30 million and Rp90 million. “This really is gold from dead wood,” he said.

Furthermore, Desa Mas was founded around 400 years ago after a visit from Danyang Nilarta. Before this Hindu priest from Kediri arrived, the village was named Tegal Tanjung. While he was meditating, Nilarta created a cane. Magically. The cane grew and from underneath there appeared seeds of gold.

Nilarta then changed the name of the village to Desa Mas. “Later, the villagers here will be able to obtain gold from dead wood,” said Nilarta according to a legend in Desa Mas. Hundreds of years later, this prediction has become true. Mudana and Gara now spend much more time at their homes. Creating carvings as they await the exhibitions being arranged by Lin Che Wei.

Bagja Hidayat and Rofiqi Hasan (Bali)


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