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The recent collaborative book, Lempad of Bali (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2014) is probably the most important work yet published on a single Balinese artist, and it has been a great pleasure to be part of it, along with Bruce Carpenter, the late John Darling, Hedi Hinzler, Kaja McGowan and Soemantri Widagdo.

Gusti Nyoman Lempad was legendary not only as a radically different artist from the 1930s, but also as the architect who created Ubud. His longevity added to his aura: while there are different estimates of his age, at his death in 1978 he was either 116 or 106. Two other books on Lempad have also come out this year. Although neither of these has much scholarly weight, they do illustrate the range of work of Lempad and his school, which mainly consisted of his family.

I was asked by the instigators of the project, Soemantri Widagdo and Bruce W. Carpenter, to help out with the captions, in particular with identifying the narratives that Lempad depicted. This proved to be a lot more than I had originally imagined, and in the process I met with a more profound set of insights into Balinese perspectives on life than I had imagined.

While a lot of people are familiar with the fine line and elegant simplicity of Lempad’s work, I only know of one unpublished engagement with his philosophy. This was a 1988 Honours thesis in my department here at the University of Sydney, by Putu Barbara Davies, who had met with Lempad and worked closely with his son, Gusti Made Sumung.

Gusti Sumung, “the gatekeeper” as he is called in our book, provided Putu with access to a set of drawings by his father of the Japatuan story, a tale rarely told in contemporary Bali, but one which had been important in the past. Japatuan is about the journey of the eponymous hero and his brother through the afterworld, in search of the spirit or soul of his deceased wife.
After going through hundreds of Lempad’s works, I could see the common threads in what Putu shows to be his treatment of this work, and his other visual story-telling. Lempad was concerned with gender, with attaining wisdom and power, and with moving between the world of the senses and the world beyond. In his art, the three are combined.


The Australian government's new policy paper, Australia in the Asian Century, was released yesterday. It's late, and I don't mean the extra six months it took to be released. 'The Asian Century' has been going for quite a while, and Australia is still playing catch-up.

We have had some great government papers on Asia before, the Garnaut and Ingleson Reports being two of them, and it's a pity that governments have such short memories about those documents. The recommendations in the new White Paper about Mandarin, Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese being core languages for schools and universities is a pared-back version of the Ingleson Report's recommendations, and a sad reflection on the fact that governments seem to have given up on Thai and other significant Asian languages.

The problem with the language recommendations is that they are largely unfunded. Existing schemes are not being replaced, and while the government is prepared to spend large amounts elsewhere, it does not want to commit in other vital areas. The solution to lack of funding is that everyone can study on-line, especially through the new National Broadband Network. This seems a remarkable confusion between a medium and its content, and anyone who has done any on-line teaching will tell you, it's expensive to set up, difficult to maintain, and students always prefer face-to-face experiences. As someone with 15 years' experience in the area, I know that students find the discipline of self-learning involved very difficult, and the main virtue of on-line learning is that it is a good supplement to class-room experience.


Our overnight stay in Bali allowed us to see more of East Bali, including the fabulous scenery at Sidemen, and a visit to the new museum established in the main palace of Karangasem (Amlapura). East Bali still gives a sense of what made Bali so attractive before rampant over-development, you can actually see the rice fields and villages, rather than an expanse of wall-to-wall artshops, hotels, coffee shops and villas.

The Puri Karangasem Museum gives a great insight into palace life, although you have to imagine the royal family, courtiers and servants in residence, since the palace is beautifully quiet, and most people have moved to Denpasar. The Museum has a nice introductory explanation sheet, and some wonderful old colonial photographs in the restored main buildings, although some of these images need labels to explain who is who and what their significance is. Interestingly our driver, a Padang Bai local, came in to see the Museum too, since this was a new experience for him.

Anchoring at Padang Bai was fascinating, since this was the spot where the first Dutch ships stopped in 1597. Great views, but it’s amazing how much the whole coast of Bali, once pristine, is now covered in little housing developments and hotels. And let’s not talk about the desperate hassling as you step onto the jetty. Despite all the shows of government planning and marketing, the poor distribution of tourist income means that tourism is stuck in a time warp in which poorer Balinese crave the instant tourist dollar, and can’t understand why shoving a bit of ugly tat in someone’s face doesn’t produce instant wealth. In a competitive market such as exists in Southeast Asia, the poor experiences of Bali that many tourists encounter can have long-term consequences.

After Bali we sailed through the Makassar Straits, with small dolphins alongside, and a high traffic in industrial shipping going both ways. The next stop was Sandakan, very much your average out-of-the-way Southeast Asian port, although the old town had been completely flattened in World War II. We visited the memorial to the Sandakan POWs who died in the camp and on the death marches. The memorial is a park on the site of the camp, disturbingly beautiful for something so awful. The main display brings home the suffering of the nearly 2,500 prisoners who died in camp or on the forced marches, or at their destination at Ranau, over 200km away. My father had been in the Australian Army during World War II, and as part of the Pacific Command ended up in hospital at Morotai in this period. There he heard a first-hand account from Jack Wong Sue, the Z Force commando who had observed the March and helped three of the six survivors. As much as I know about the history of Japanese militarism, I cannot comprehend how such inhuman brutality could be possible.


I’ve found an opportunity to explore my interest in Southeast Asia’s maritime history, by taking up the invitation to be a guest lecturer on a luxury cruise ship. We joined the ship in Fremantle, which gave me the chance to revisit the wreck of the Batavia in the Shipwreck Museum, as well as to see the W.A. Maritime Museum. The latter has a nice display on pearling in Broome, including a photograph of the Hilliard family, showing what I assume to be a young Robin with his parents.

For those unfamiliar with the story of the Batavia, it is vividly captured in Mike Dash’s book on the subject. In 1629 the Dutch vessel, captained by the ailing and unloved Franscisco Pelsaert, came to grief on the rocky islands known as Houtman’s Abrolhos off the West Australian coast. While Pelsaert took a small group of crew to the city of Batavia (Jakarta) for help when food and water were running low, an apothecary, Jeronimus Corneliz., led one of the most gruesome mass murders in history, killing some 125 of the passengers. Pelsaert eventually returned with reinforcements, and captured the mutineers, executing most of them on the islands after a short trial. Finding the wreck was an involved story, in which the author, Henrietta Drake-Brockman, played a significant role, and the Museum displays a large and impressive part of the stern, as well as much of the money on board, a part of one of the city gates of the city of Batavia (one of the few remnants of the old Jakarta fort), and even a skeleton of one of the victims. Given than no museum dares to display indigenous body parts, it is remarkable that this latter reminder of the horror of the massacre remains. The story of the Batavia has inspired many theories and novels, including English Science Fiction writer, Michael Moorcock’s, best known series which was where I first read of the Batavia.

We sailed past the islands where the wreck and mutiny took place during the early hours of the first full day at sea, and I timed my lecture on the VOC (the Dutch East India Company) and Australia to coincide with our passage along the part of the coast where Dirk Hartog landed in 1616. His plate memorialising this event and giving the Dutch legal claim to Australia is also in the Shipwreck Museum. As I’m writing, we’re passing through a storm, but our ship remains remarkably stable, very much a contrast with what conditions must have been like for the seventeenth-century Dutch ships. It’s great to see the views of the W.A. coast, which were beautifully drawn in the mid-seventeenth century as part of Abel Tasman’s expedition which mapped most of Australia and a significant part of New Zealand (sorry James Cook fans, he just cleaned up the left-overs).

I've been working on this project now for a number of years, although it goes back to my original 1978-79 research on the Kerta Ghosa in Klungkung for my honours thesis. Recently Siobhan Campbell, our PhD student on the project, and I gave the Anthony Forge memorial lecture, about Forge's work, and our work projects on the history and collecting of Balinese painting. You can hear the podcast and see the slides at http://rsha.anu.edu.au/events/forge. Our collaboration with the Australian Museum is documented at http://australianmuseum.net.au/research/Collecting-Balinese-Art-the-Forge-Collection-of-Balinese-Paintings-at-the-Australian-Museum

I'm hoping to have my general account of the history of Balinese painting to the publisher by the end of March. At some stage next year our database, an on-line resource using the Heurist program, will be made public. To date we have nearly 2,500 artworks listed, from the Australian Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, the Tropen in Amsterdam, and a number of important private collections, including works that have been documented by Leo Haks, and the former collection of Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, for which Hildred Geertz has supplied important research materials.

Along with Dr Julia Martìnez of the University of Wollongong I have been working on an Australian Research Council Grant looking at Indonesians in Australia between 1880 and 1972. As part of the end-stage of the project, Dr Martinez and I have been giving public seminars in Jakarta, Darwin and Broome. The project is concerned with the experiences of ordinary people living and working between north Australia and Indonesia. The stories of sailors, dock workers, divers and pearling captains from Broome to the Torres Strait, and from Dobo to Komodo, show the relationship between the two countries in a completely new light.

This project seeks to uncover the unknown history of mobility between north Australia and Indonesia from the late nineteenth century until the end of the White Australia Policy. The project focuses on the pearling industry, and the bringing of Indonesian workers to Australia under a variety of schemes, including indenture. Our work has brought to light stories of entrepreneurs, union leaders and war heroes who formed part of an international maritime community within the region.

Our research has revealed that the involvement of Australians in pearling in Eastern Indonesia has been largely neglected or under-estimated. We have uncovered personal stories of the Indonesians who came to Australia, some of whom eventually became Australian citizens, stories that are unknown even within the growing literature on Australian-Indonesian relations.

The Broome presentation was a major highlight of the project, as we had a chance to meet with former pearling industry workers, such as Ahmat bin Fadal, originally from the island of Bawean, who was one of the last Indonesians to come to Broome as a pearl diver. We had the great honour of being welcomed to Country by Marjardee, a Yawuru woman whose father, Abdul Gafur from Alor, was the first Indonesian to be fully initiated into the Yawuru. People at the seminar were keen to tell us about their family members, and we in turn were able to provide information from un-opened archives that shed new light on where their parents or other relatives came from, and their struggle go get recognition from the Australian government. A recording of the event, along with supplementary interview, was made by the ABC Kimberley, and is available on their website:

Last week’s visit by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was a good opportunity for me to view the strengths and weaknesses of the Australia-Indonesian relationship up close. Predictably, the lead-up in the newspapers (especially The Australian) was all about terrorism and people smuggling. Despite SBY giving a lengthy address to the Australian Parliament suggesting that Australians have too narrow an understanding of Indonesia, and explicitly pointing out that Australian perceptions are over ten years out-of-date, those same themes seemed to preoccupy the Rudd Government. In the latter case, I think it’s because Prime Minister Rudd himself has not moved beyond the identification between Indonesia and Islamic terrorism that dominated his time as Shadow Foreign Minister. The many references to the Travel Warnings in SBY’s and his ministers’ speeches show that Indonesia has long ago lost patience with the Australian Government on this issue. Nevertheless, the more positive signals from Australia—having the President address the joint Houses, and presenting him with an Order of Australia—went down well.

On the Indonesian side, the signals of positive intent were strong, but based on a cultural misperception. In Indonesia a large entourage is an demonstration of prestige and status, so the President brought thirteen ministers, six governors, assorted parliamentary delegates, and numerous other advisors and minders. Although probably not all of them were used, I’m told that over 200 visas were issued for the visit. However the size of the visit, including last-minute notice of who was coming, created a logistical nightmare, and did not really allow the Australian side to prepare properly, so much of the delegation was surplus to requirements. The Sydney Morning Herald featured a front-page story saying that the Governor of New South Wales was ten minutes late for her meeting with SBY, but didn’t report that this was because there was only one lift available for the massive Indonesian delegation.

While the Australian Government could send more positive signals by dropping the level of travel warning to the same level as India, the Indonesian side still has work to do as well. Rumour has it that the long-awaited Free Trade Agreement, initiated by the Howard Government, is being held up by the ever-disfunctional Indonesian parliament. Likewise Indonesian leaders are constantly telling us how they want more Australians to study Indonesia, but do nothing to fix the arduous visa and research permit processes. These processes are Suharto-era remnants involving multiple government departments, and thus provide minor officials with endless opportunities for bribe-collecting.


About the Blog

A series of notes and discussions about current research I am undertaking about Indonesia.

Recommended links

Bali Indonesia Guide A page that combines tourist and cultural information

Indonesia matters Entertaining discussions on what's happening in Indonesia

Sejarah Indonesia

Kartun Indonesia