“Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance”: Art Review

Beautiful items from Bali? That's expected in a major exhibit like this one. What isn't are the layers that announce unpleasant truths or cause visitors to squirm a bit. The Asian Art Museum is calling this “the first in-depth examination in the United States of Balinese artistic traditions.” Those traditions are steeped in centuries of influence from Hindu and Buddhist practices, but also from Dutch colonialism. European influence can be seen in the elaborate furniture that became a valued part of Bali's royal arts. On the other hand, Dutch rule divided the country along harsh economic lines, which the museum acknowledges in a wall text that explains how the “tourist image” of early-20th-century Bali differed markedly from the reality of widespread poverty and health challenges. Tourists have always seen Bali as paradise on earth, but the Balinese also emphasize rituals that celebrate the end of life. This exhibit features a video of an elaborate cremation ceremony, where the bones of bodies are washed in the open and reassembled in a sarcophagus. It's not for the faint of heart. All this is balanced by other displays that emphasize the kind of sublime beauty that Bali is known for — textiles, instruments, masks, and puppets. The stories these objects tell never get old.

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