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Hashtagging an Ancient Art: Internet Technologies and Mask-Making in Contemporary Bali

think-09-10-Hashtagging an Ancient Art-Featured Image

Cok Alit Artawan is a lecturer at the Indonesian Institute for the Arts (Institut Seni Indonesia, or ISI) in Bali’s capital city of Denpasar. An avid Facebook user, he is also a carver of wooden masks. As we chat on the verandah of his home, Cok Alit pulls out his laptop and opens a page showing images of some of Bali’s most revered old masks. These photographs, like others saved in his hard drive, now provide fodder for his creative work, from a source which did not exist just a few years ago.

 

Internet technologies – in particular, social media platforms – have impacted on a new generation of Balinese artistes like Cok Alit, who straddle the seemingly disparate worlds of ancient practices and an unbounded cyber-modernity.

Mask of Sidakarya

Believed by Balinese Hindus to be the most sacred of topeng masks, Sidakarya represents an unattractive but powerful priest from East Java. The mask is only used during ritual topeng performances. Photo: iStock

As many topeng masks were considered spiritually charged, mask makers had also to be well-versed in religious beliefs and practices. They also had to be adept in a variety of knowledges – dancing, acting, painting, carving, singing and religion.

Often performed as part of Balinese Hindu religious ceremonies, masked theatre (topeng) has been part of the Balinese cultural landscape since time immemorial.1 The exact origins of topeng are uncertain, although the art form likely developed into its present style during the 17th century. Topeng performances narrate episodes from Bali’s pre-colonial quasi-historical royal chronicles. Traditionally performed by one man wearing a series of different masks, newer genres of topeng have an expanded cast of two to five actors. Comic characters such as foreigners share the topeng stage with historical kings, making the drama a pastiche of interwoven temporal worlds meant to excite both human and divine audiences.

 

All topeng performers wear masks when on stage. These masks represent a range of archetypical characters such as prime ministers, kings, priests, old men, royal servants and comic villagers. Masks were traditionally produced by craftsmen who were often also actors themselves. As many topeng masks were considered spiritually charged, mask makers had also to be well-versed in religious beliefs and practices. They also had to be adept in a variety of knowledges – dancing, acting, painting, carving, singing and religion. Learning to make a topeng mask was an arduous process and students often trained for extended periods of time under different teachers. Masks created by highly esteemed artisans were celebrated as being vessels for the immense sacred power that emanated from the hand of their carver. These masks were believed by many Balinese to possess a supernatural enchantment that made them living objects. The famed dancer and mask carver Anak Agung Gede Raka (1886-1948) of Sukawati was said to be so spiritually potent that many carvers would bring their unfinished projects to him for critique and approval. If he liked what he saw, the mask would be well-received by viewers. Similarly, if he corrected a student’s work, the mask would be automatically charged with the master craftsman’s spiritual power.

Wayang Wong mask

There are a variety of masked genres in Bali. Unlike topeng which focuses on local histories, Wayang Wong masks represent characters from the Ramayana epic. Photo: iStock

With the expansion of mass tourism since the mid-1900s, topeng masks have taken on a new significance in Balinese society. Besides continuing to be power-charged objects used in theatre, many masks are now sold as souvenirs. By the 1970s, home-based cottage industries emerged in mask- making villages, churning out cheaper, non-sacred masks for a booming handicraft market. These masks are sold as symbols of Balinese exoticism in the many ‘art shops’ and crafts markets that have sprung up around the tourist hubs of Kuta, Sanur and Ubud.

By placing their works on social media platforms these young carvers were also attempting to make a name for themselves within Bali’s traditional arts world.

MASK MAKING GOES ONLINE

The rise in visitor arrivals since the 1990s has resulted in a Bali marked by traffic jams, pollution, exploitation, crime and environmental destruction. The 2002 terrorist attack in Kuta added a new kind of fear to an already frustrated Balinese public. By the early 2000s, a political slogan championing a return to seemingly ‘pristine’ Balinese cultural values based on a particular reading of Hinduism and artistic production permeated Bali’s main media channels. The Bali Post, Bali’s leading newspaper, and its affiliated television channel Bali TV, carried regular features about a Bali free from the corruptions of globalisation, uncontrolled tourism and foreign immigration. The Ajeg Bali (Let Bali Stand Strong) Movement, albeit articulated at the level of governmental slogans, trickled into the lives of thousands.2 In June of 2008, this nativist discourse of a Bali in need of protection culminated in the 1st Bali Cultural Congress that foregrounded issues of aesthetic uniqueness integrated within an alien concept of artistic ownership. A new sense of individualism permeated the way many young Balinese artistes understood their creations while maintaining older traditional values of art as a social and ritual obligation. It was also during this time that the internet bulldozed its way into Bali; Ajeg Bali values and discourses circulated online, expanding its reach even further.

 

The rise in social media usage in Bali followed on the heels of more affordable mobile phones, attractive data plans and improved service quality. 3 The Balinese, like other Indonesians, took to the internet with gusto. As of 2020, Facebook had garnered 70% of the market share of social media platforms in Indonesia totalling 168.7 million users across the archipelago (Nurhayati-Wolff 2021). Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and WhatsApp have allowed many Balinese artistes to be part of wider communities of like-minded individuals. Within the last year, a number of Facebook and Instagram interest groups were set up and have attracted thousands of members.

Unfinished topeng masks

Carved from lightweight wood, topeng masks were traditionally painted using natural pigments, a slow and arduous process. Many mask makers today prefer cheaper factory-produced acrylics. Each mask requires at least ten layers of paint to produce the desired consistency of colour. Source: Facebook of I Made Sama

These groups provide a public platform for Bali’s tech-savvy mask makers to post pictures or short videos of their works and elicit comments from viewers. “I am still learning. Please provide me with your guidance,” is a common refrain on these sites. In so doing, these youths are in fact using the internet to engage with a much older system of learning where unfinished or newly made masks were brought to respected carvers for critique. By placing their works on social media platforms these young carvers are also attempting to make a name for themselves within Bali’s traditional arts world. “Likes”, “Shares” and “Thumbs Ups” saturate posts showing masks made by otherwise unknown carvers, increasing their online presence and the consequent public visibility of their personae as artisans.

 

Prior to the introduction of electronic media, the number of mask makers in Bali were few. Today, YouTube tutorials and short home-made documentary uploads of the mask-making process have allowed more Balinese to venture into the art form without needing years of formal training. Facebook groups allow mask makers to conveniently link up with suppliers of the materials – knives, wood, paint and so on – needed for their craft. Mask carvers now regularly search the internet for pictures of masks – obtained from palace collections, museums and so forth – to help them find inspiration for their projects.

Posting and hashtagging images of masks on Facebook and Instagram have allowed carvers to learn and copy from each other – sometimes even generating fads in the process. Masks representing the sacred character of Sidakarya and the Prime Minister Gajah Mada carved in the Klungkung style went viral in 2020 on Facebook and Instagram. Balinese YouTubers and video bloggers have also jumped on the mask-making trend and released short videos of topeng performances, mask-making tutorials and interviews with more established carvers. Sensationalist videos about the supernatural properties of some masks also float across YouTube channels and are shared liberally across Facebook groups.

A topeng actor before a performance

Younger topeng practitioners often take pictures and videos of their masks and performances and upload them to their social media pages. These images not only forge a cyber community of like-minded topeng enthusiasts but also help generate publicity for the performer and his art. Source: Irving Chan Johnson

I Made Sama, well-known amongst Balinese topeng performers for his classical creations, has images of his masks regularly uploaded on the Facebook and Instagram pages of his son Kadek. Posting in English allows Kadek to expand the market for his father’s masks beyond Bali. A recent order from a Brazilian theatre practitioner saw some 20 traditional Balinese clown masks shipped from Bali to Brazil. Anak Agung Mayun, a mask maker in his early twenties from the district of Klungkung, uses Facebook liberally to showcase his many creations, which he feels helps preserve the Klungkung style of mask carving while also supplementing his income. Like many other mask makers I spoke to, Mayun – an undergraduate – speaks of masks and mask-making in the language of traditionalism and heritage that has albeit one that has been mediated by Bali’s new media technologies.

Through engaging with mass media technologies, Balinese mask makers are doing what their community has been doing for centuries – engaging with the new to consolidate an already strong sense of traditional identity.

The use of the internet as a platform to promote one’s products and increase one’s artistic visibility as a mask maker was summed up in a conversation I had with Pebri Rwa Bhineda, a mask maker from Tampaksiring. Pebri constantly updates his social media profiles with images of his masks. Coming from a family of wood carvers, Pebri has learnt to harness the internet to his advantage. He notes: “To me, Facebook and Instagram are very good and helpful for artistes to introduce their works. Social media can also be a tool for education for those who love art, for example, posting tutorials on mask-making and introducing the different types of masks. It can also be helpful economically for artistes to upload images of the items they sell. Newcomers (to mask-making) can learn from these posts”4

 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Bali in mid-2020, the island’s economy has suffered drastically. The lack of tourist revenues has resulted in many young Balinese returning to their villages. Periodic lockdowns have meant that earning a regular income becomes more difficult. During this period, a larger number of young men have also started taking up mask-making – both as a means of cultural pride in an age of uncertainty and as a means of income generation. Placing images of masks on Facebook group pages allows for a new kind of advertising to occur. Topeng performers and collectors, unable to leave their homes due to the pandemic, easily chat up carvers via WhatsApp and Messenger to discuss their purchases. With the price agreed upon in cyberspace, the buyer transfers payment online and receives his mask in the post within a week.

 

CONCLUSION

This article has explored the transformation of mask-making in modern Bali. Similar types of engagements across internet spaces occur throughout traditional arts communities in Southeast Asia. Temple mural painters in Thailand, for instance, showcase their creations on Facebook and Instagram pages dedicated to the art, and engage in the diverse economic opportunities once unavailable to their forefathers. Through engaging with mass media technologies, Balinese mask makers are doing what their community has been doing for centuries – engaging with the new to consolidate an already strong sense of traditional identity.

REFERENCES

  1. Hanadian Nurhayati-Wolff. May 20 (2021) in www.statista.com/topics/2431/internet-usage-in-Indonesia/ (accessed on 29/9/2021)
  2. Collier, Bethany. (2014) Looking to the future: training a new generation for Balinese ‘Arja’, Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 31. No. 2. Pp. 457-480.
  3. Tamatea, Laurence. (2011) Ajeg Bali discourse: globalisation, fear and Othering, Asian Ethnicity, Vol. 12, No. 2. Pp. 155-177.
  4. Allen, Pamela and Carmencita, Palermo. (2005) Ajeg Bali: multiple meanings, diverse agendas, Indonesia, and the Malay World. Vol. 33, No. 97. Pp. 239-255.
  5. McGraw, Andrew Clay. (2009) The political economy of the performing arts in Bali, Indonesia and the Malay World, Vol. 37, No. 109. Pp. 199-325.

ASSOC PROF IRVING CHAN JOHNSON

Assoc Prof Irving Chan Johnson is Deputy Head of the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. He received his Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from Harvard University in 2004. His main research areas are the Thai Buddhist community of Kelantan, Malaysia, in relation to issues of historical production, ethnicity, and religion; and traditional visual and performing arts in Bali and central and southern Thailand. He is also the founder of Eka Suwara Santhi, Singapore's only Balinese dance group.

DECEMBER 2021 | ISSUE 9

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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