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November 2014

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While a lot of people are familiar with the fine line and elegant simplicity of Lempad’s work, I only know of one unpublished engagement with his philosophy.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.

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