Pande Wayan Suteja Neka, founder of the famous Neka
High steps lead up the steep hill to the Neka
Gallery in the Balinese village of Ubud. Slumped in a cane chair at the far end of the
gallery sprawls the owner, a slender, middle-aged man, dressed in black, having just
returned from a funeral. In spite of his evident weariness he greets us warmly. And as he
starts telling us about his art collection, his gallery and his museum his face lights up
with animation. His tiredness forgotten, Suteja Neka, the collector, speaks with love and
passion about his lifework as he guides us through his accumulated art treasures.
But Pande Wayan Suteja Neka's greatest claim
to fame does not come from his gallery but from his creation of the Neka Museum, located
on a large piece of land overlooking a spectacular river gorge at Campuhan, just outside
Ubud. Here in a series of traditional Balinese pavilions some of Bali's and Indonesia's
finest art is on display.
Born in Peliatan, Ubud in 1939, the son of a
renowned woodcarver, the young Neka grew up surrounded by art. His father was a member of
the ground-breaking Pitamaha Artists' Association, founded in 1936 by Walter Spies, Rudolf
Bonnet and the Ubud prince, Cokorda Gede Agung Sukawati. But, although Suteja Neka was
always greatly drawn to both art and artists he did not choose art as his vocation but
instead became a school teacher.
Still there was no escaping his destiny.
Living in Ubud, which by then had become the creative hub of the Bali art scene, he was in
constant contact with the many talented artists in the area. Gradually he became aware
that through the growth of tourism many of the finest examples of Balinese art were
leaving the island, snapped up by foreign collectors. By 1966 his awareness had turned
into such concern that he decided to dedicate himself full time to collecting, preserving
and promoting Balinese art. With great enthusiasm he set about his new task, encouraged
and advised by the respected Dutch painter, Rudolf Bonnet. His collection started modestly
but it was not long before the Neka Gallery had become one of the finest in Bali.
With a successful and well-regarded gallery
established, the thought to open a museum seemed to follow naturally. Since Ubud's
existing museum, Puri Lukisan, focused on works by artists from the Pitamaha era Neka
started building his collection around contemporary artists. His decision to open a museum
was reinforced when, at Bonnet's invitation, he travelled to Europe in 1975 and found that
many museums there held excellent collections of both traditional and contemporary
He returned home even more convinced that he
must do all he could to preserve Bali's important art heritage and the following year he
opened the four original galleries of the Neka Museum. At the opening, his collection
comprised forty-five works and at first the focus was on recent art, mainly drawings and
paintings with Balinese themes.
By 1982 the Indonesian Government had
acknowledged the importance of his museum and on 7th July that year Museum Neka was
officially opened by the then Minister of Education and Culture, Dr. Daoed Joesoef. The
museum was placed under the management of the Yayasan Dharma Seni art foundation and
through the foundation it publishes books on art and catalogues of special exhibitions.
Over the years Neka's collection has grown
more comprehensive and it now includes not only art works by Balinese painters but an
extensive range of paintings by artists from other parts of Indonesia as well. His two
basic criteria when choosing art works for his museum are, firstly, that the artist must
have been true to himself, and, secondly, that the works should be inspired by Bali. He
has also developed a certain gut-feeling for what is a suitable painting for his museum.
For the completeness of his collection he has even included paintings that he does not
particularly like. And for historical reasons he has added works from Bali's earliest
Based on traditional Balinese architecture,
the pavilions - there are now six of them - are set around an attractive garden in the
style of a village compound. In this tranquil haven the Neka Museum invites you to take a
leisurely stroll through Bali's rich history of art.
Beginning with an exploration of traditional
Balinese painting, the first room in the first pavilion features classical wayang (puppet
figure) style works, based on stories from the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata
as well as Balinese and Javanese folklore. Derived from the Kamasan style,
these early paintings, packed with amazing two-dimensional, stylized characters, were
often used to decorate shrines and pavilions during religious ceremonies. The bodies are
mostly shown in full frontal position while the faces are in three-quarter profile. The
colour pigments come from nature, and the pre-dominant colours are yellow (from ochre),
red (from Chinese cinnabar), brown (from red-oxide clay mixed with soot) and blue (from
indigo leaves). Black is made from charcoal or soot while white comes from the white ashes
of burnt deer antlers or animal bones. On display is an early Kamasan canvas painted on
bark paper using these mineral pigments, a tradition that has been traced back to the 17th
century. This style of painting is still practised today at the village of Kamasan,
Until the arrival in Bali of artists Walter
Spies (1895-1942) and Rudolf Bonnet (1895-1978) in the late 1920s, Balinese painting had
been locked into rigidly stylized, traditional subject matter that had remained virtually
unchanged for centuries. But with the stimulation created by their arrival, a new school
of painting emerged, called the Ubud Style. While the European artists did not formally
teach the Balinese painters, they encouraged them to paint broader themes, scenes from
everyday life, and through their influence new materials came into use. No longer were the
works produced exclusively for religious or ceremonial purposes. During this period, the
Balinese painters started to take note of geometric perspective, anatomy and light and
shadow. Although the subject matter and style had changed, the fresh, innovative paintings
by artists such as Nyoman Lesug, Dewa Putu Bedil and Anak Agung Gede Sobrat still showed
their unique Balinese exuberance.
During this time the artists in the nearby
village of Batuan continued working in a more classical style largely unaffected by
outside change. Many of the sombre and mysterious works by Ida Bagus Togog and Ida Bagus
Wija take their inspiration from ancient fables and legends, often with supernatural
overtones. Everyday life is also a recurrent subject with an amusing painting by Wayan
Bendi featuring a liberal sprinkling of camera-toting tourists eagerly pointing their
lenses at stunned water buffaloes and patient, graceful Balinese trying to go about their
European and other Western painters based in
Bali have not been forgotten either. The next pavilion, a two-storey building, is
dedicated to the Dutch-born painter, Arie Smit. Now in his late seventies, Smit still
lives in Ubud, and, although age has somewhat slowed his output, he is still producing
fine quality, imaginative paintings. Having spent time in Indonesia since the late 1930s,
Smit settled in Bali in 1956 and four years later he opened his studio to the children of
nearby Penestanan. Providing all the necessary painting materials, he introduced a naive
approach to Balinese art and is now regarded as the father of the Young Artists school of
painting. This style is bright, graphic and spontaneous and the intense colours often have
little to do with the true colours found in nature.
The lower level of the Arie Smit pavilion is
devoted to his students, the Young Artists, still so called although they are no longer
young. Highly individualistic works by other contemporary Balinese painters, many with
academic training, are also featured on this level. Paintings by Ketut Soki, I Nyoman
Gunarsa and Nyoman Tusan stand out in this varied collection.
Next door a small building houses a special
display of black and white photographs taken in the late 1930s by American Robert Koke who
with his wife Louise opened the first hotel in Kuta. Fascinating scenes from village life,
religious ceremonies and traditional dances offer an interesting insight into Bali at the
time of the dawn of tourism. (Louise Koke is the author of "Our Hotel in Bali".)
Facing the central garden courtyard, the next
pavilion displays the largest single collection of the distinctive works of one of Bali's
most famous artists, I Gusti Nyoman Lempad (c.1862-1978). Lempad, a multi-talented man,
had already become a legend during his lifetime for his outstanding creative skills in
depicting the Hindu epics and Balinese folktales. With only scant influence from the West
he developed a unique clarity and form in his balanced and harmonious compositions. And
today his expressionistic, often humorous, ink line drawings are internationally sought
Works by modern Indonesian painters
(non-Balinese) fill the last two pavilions. With styles ranging from realism through
expressionism to abstraction, painters as varied as Affandi, Abas Alibasyah, Abdul Aziz,
Sudarsono, Sujoyono, Widayat, and Anton H. (Anton Kustia Wijaya) show their art.
In the midst of this striking collection,
Affandi's paintings stand out with their bold strokes and vigorous colours. Born in
Cirebon, West Java in 1907, this grand old man of Indonesian art often applied his oil
colours in generous lashings straight from the tube. When he died in 1990 he was
Indonesia's internationally best-known artist.
Eye-catching is also Anton Kustia Wijaya's
Three Masked Dancers, an expressive, colourful, mosaic-style painting with a strong sense
of design where despite the liveliness of the work the faces and eyes of the three masks
dominate. In Abdul Aziz' paintings the relaxed, informal models often spill out of their
frames, adding to the three-dimensional effect. By contrast, the decorative, stylized
trees of Javanese painter, Widayat, stand out starkly.
The top floor of the last pavilion, aptly
named the East-West Art Annex, is devoted to works by the many foreign-born artists who
have taken their inspiration from the magic and mystery that is Bali. Side by side hang
paintings from Dutchman Rudolf Bonnet, Swiss artist Theo Meier, Catalan expatriate Antonio
Blanco, Australian artist Donald Friend, American water-colourist Paul Nagano, Singaporean
Teng Nee Cheong and many others. A virtual United Nations of artists with one common bond
reaching across the many varied styles and techniques - their evident love for this
beautiful and fascinating island and its people.
On this floor, a special section has been set
aside for works by Dutch artist Willem Gerard Hofker (1902-1981). Hofker moved to Bali in
the late 1930s and spent the next six years there. He was especially fond of painting the
Balinese people and their traditions and produced some outstanding, sensitive portrayals
of Balinese women.
Our impressive tour completed, we agree with
Neka that it was fortunate that he had the drive and foresight to start preserving
Balinese art as early as 1966, since it would be almost impossible to put together a
collection of similar breadth and variety today.
Although Suteja Neka did not become an artist
like his father, his contribution to Balinese art has no doubt been even greater through
his ongoing devotion to the ever-expanding collection of works housed at the Neka Museum.
And when he says wistfully: "Artists are fortunate because they can live twice, first
through their lives, and then into the future through their works", we feel confident
that this will also apply to Pande Wayan Suteja Neka, ambassador of Balinese arts. His
name will live long into the future.
Painter in Paradise by