Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bali Unveiled 2

The photographs displayed in these two exhibitions are from the collection of Maurizio Rosenberg Colorni, who has been searching for old Balinese photographs since 2003.

Bali Unveiled photographs exhibition

They are mostly from anonymous sources with a few exceptions. These are the first of many exhibitions of early Bali photographs to be shown on Bali by Rosenberg Colorni.

The art of photography has undergone incredible transformations over the past century. What began as a replacement of sorts for painting, with the subjects sitting for several seconds in a contrived setting has turned into the photo-shopped images of today.

Photography was important for Bali as it was the early photographs of the German Gregor Krause (Bali 1912, published in 1920) that titillated the foreign populace prompting the droves of tourists to Bali’s shores in the 1930s. Not only tourists, but anthropologists and historians were also influenced by these early photographs wanting to know more about this exotic isle. It helped that many of his photographs showed Balinese maidens and lads bathing and in the nude, giving the (false) impression that Bali was a sexual paradise. This was in accord with the prevailing mood of the time in Europe, where a “back-to-nature” movement was happening, with people longing for the natural, the innocent, as well as the exotic. Bali became a symbol of all of this for the foreigners who came to visit.

Bali Unveiled photographs exhibition


Bali was brought to the attention of the Western world through photography. Krause’s provocative black and white shots of maidens and lads bathing, topless women going about their daily business and posed half naked women amid coconut palms evoked an island paradise where women easily gave out favors, the fruit and juices flowed and the cares of the world could be forgotten.

This perpetuation of an island paradise continued throughout the early twentieth century with the publication of Miguel Covarrubias’s encyclopedic (and romanticized vision) Island of Bali, Gotthard Schuh’s Insel der Gotter, Beryl de Zoete and Walter Spies’ Dance and Drama in Bali, Hickman Powell’s The Last Paradise and many more. Many of these early writers and photographers extolled the beauty of Balinese women and their breasts.

What is interesting to note is that when Balinese look at these images from 80 years ago, they see the malnutrition and weariness in the faces and bodies of their ancestors. Where the European saw harmony and peace and of course, the “lost paradise” they had been seeking after their countries had been torn apart by World War I, the Balinese saw the ordinary—an island filled with hard-working and poor inhabitants.

Bali Unveiled photographs exhibition

The Tourist Gaze

Photography, by its very existence, puts up a wall between the object being photographed and the person taking the picture. Usually the tourist photographer is taking pictures of the “other” to show to his/her cohorts back home. The tourist gaze tends to focus on difference, the exotic. The Bali of the 1930s – 1950s was one of (male) fantasy: golden maidens and lads in various stages of undress conjured up a dream island of unlimited sexuality, when in fact the Balinese culture was nothing like the image represented. In the early photographs, we see little of daily life if there is not a (often posed) topless young woman involved.

Bali had been virtually ignored by its Dutch colonialists until 1908 when it became fully annexed. Yet the Dutch wanted to keep it as a “living museum”. Most of the Westerners who had been in Bali up to that time were government officials, with a sprinkling of naturalists and social scientists. The publication of Krause’s book started a new movement of people coming to Bali. Now it was voyeurs, travelers and tourists – all burdened with their cameras and their world weary bodies.

At that time, uncovered bodies were seen as heathen and primitive, but also exotic and a fulfillment of a (primarily male) fantasy. To the Balinese, the breast was and still is an object that nurtures and gives life and is not branded as sexual as it is in the West. Europeans in the early part of the 20th century looked on nakedness either as representing “primitive savagery” and “wanton sexuality” or the epitome of the paradise of Eden, with all the innocence that such nakedness can imply.

Bali Unveiled photographs exhibition


Tourism began in earnest in 1924 with weekly cruises on Dutch ships from major ports in Indonesia to Bali. In 1928, the Dutch opened the still extant Bali Hotel (now called the Inna Bali Hotel on Jalan Veteran, Denpasar). In 1938, as many as three flights a week began to land near Denpasar (and of course, with the opening of the international airport in 1974, a whole new brand of mass tourism began).

And the tourists came in part because of the lure of the breast.

Balinese breasts gained such fame worldwide that in 1927 a couple made famous the Bali bra brand (the bra was actually only invented at the turn of the 20th century and was seen as a “liberating” garment compared to the earlier corsets). “As a 1937 ad noted, ‘“A beautiful bust line is the heritage of the women of Bali… the modern woman achieves the same lovely countour—youthfully rounded, definitely separated—in perfect comfort.” (As if anything could be more comfortable than no bra at all!).’ (Margaret Weiner, “Breast, (Un)Dress, and Modernist Desires in the Balinese-Tourst Encounter” in Dirt, Undress, and Difference: Critical Perspectives on the Bodys Surface, ed Adeline Masquelier, Indiana University Press, 2005). Many Balinese women today sleep fully clothed, including wearing a bra!


Women began covering up even before the onslaught of tourism in an attempt to look “modern”. Some of them wanted to identify with their colonizers (the Dutch) and bared breasts were considered “savage” and “undressed”. Yet at the same time, in the 1920s there was a growing nationalist movement happening throughout what is now Indonesia and part of that movement was to retain what was traditional and reject the foreign. Therefore, wearing a kebaya (now the national traditional dress of Indonesian women even though in all of the Indonesian indigenous cultures the kebaya is not a part of traditional dress) was an anti-colonial statement, at the same time aligning oneself with the Dutch custom of covering one’s breasts!

There is a myth that the Dutch military imposed a rule that Balinese women must cover up their breasts so as not to arouse the Dutch soldiers’ sexual energies, but there is no written evidence that this is the case. The women (and the men) impersonated those in power by wearing European dress styles.

Educated Balinese started to protest the obsession with photographing and gawking at Balinese women’s breasts. In 1938 the Bali Dharma Laksana group urged the Dutch colonialists (still in power at that time) to ban the sale of such photographs and to prohibit tourists from photographing bare breasted women. The covering up of Balinese breasts was therefore not the Dutch imploring the women to cover up, but more from the Balinese themselves who were tired of being featured as “exotic primitives”.

The kebaya comes to town

The kebaya is a sewn garment that covers not only breasts, but also the shoulders and arms. It was originally tailored by Eurasians in Batavia (Jakarta) in the early 19th century. By the end of the l9th century, European women were wearing the kebaya with a sarong in the comfort of their homes in Batavia. When the kebaya came to Bali in the early 20th century, it was more associated with the Javanese than with the Europeans and was worn more by the upper classes. “Educated in colonial schools, this class internalized notions of dress and undress forged originally through Christian piety, bourgeois respectability, and historicist narratives of progress and translated these for local consumption” (Margaret Weiner “Breast, (Un)Dress, and Modernist Desires in the Balinese-Tourst Encounter” in Dirt, Undress, and Difference: Critical Perspectives on the Bodys Surface, ed Adeline Masquelier, Indiana University Press, 2005, page 63).

The photographs that we find from the 1950s on do not feature the breast as had their predecessors. The times had changed, another World War had occurred and photography had also developed into a form that was accessible to more amateurs.

Tourists of the 1970s romped around in singlets and bikinis. Today modern Indonesians look upon the scantily dressed (or undressed!) as a symbol of Western loose morals and values. Yet to a Westerner, the more of the body that shows, the more the wearer is at leisure (and thus the wearer is in a more powerful position as s/he can afford to be at leisure). So we have come full circle from the undressed breast symbolizing primitivism to the nearly undressed Western body symbolizing wealth and leisure.

It is interesting to note that for the last 50 years the Balinese women have been covering themselves up whereas the European women who flock on Bali’s beaches are topless and have the “tourist gaze” of Indonesian men upon them!

Today the modern Balinese woman prefers to wear a see through lace kebaya that shows everything underneath—her arms, shoulders and whatever she is wearing to cover her breasts, whether a bra, a long corset or a colored tube top that complements her kebaya. In this sense, she is returning back to the earlier times when women covered their breasts (but not their shoulders or arms) to enter a temple.

Concepts of dress and undress, and the power that inherently goes along with body images, will continue to be something that we all must deal with on a daily basis—it happens every day when we have to decide what to wear. The Balinese now use their traditional clothing (pakaian adat) as a statement of identity—it is not only worn now for rituals but also at state functions and to perpetuate their idea of difference, to both Europeans and other Indonesians. Whether used to perpetuate the idea of power or to maintain an identity of “the other”, clothes or the lack therein, as they say “make the man” (or woman).


Prior to Gregor Krause, most of the photographs the outside world saw of Bali were posed, many of these were of nobility or people in power who could afford to have their pictures taken or had connections. Early photography was in fact about power—only those who had it were able to have their images immortalized in black and white. One had to sit still for a long period of time while the photographer was hidden under the black cloak of the large format camera. Some of the photographs here had to have the eyes retouched as the model blinked too many times.

The subjects in the earliest photographs are all photographed outdoors and not in a studio setting. The negatives are made out of glass and the photograph was contact printed, i.e. not using an enlarger, and was the same size as the glass negative.

As we move into the 20th century, the cameras become smaller and lighter and negatives were no longer made of glass, but of celluloid providing the photographer with the ability to “catch the moment” and giving the photographers (and their subjects) much more freedom. The photographers were often social scientists and had more of a “documentary” eye, therefore the subjects were from all classes and in all kinds of settings, as opposed to the royal portrait settings of the late 1800s.

A. Thienneman, a German geologist came to Bali in 1935 and was given the “Tropical’’ version of Leica camera to try out. Even though he was not a professional photographer, he was able to capture many images – most of them had to do with volcanoes (he was a geologist, after all!) but he also took many pictures of daily life in a more casual context.

A few years later, the now well-known Swiss photographer Gotthard Schuh came to Bali and lived in the villages, where he took innumerable photographs. The contrast between his style and Thienneman cannot even be compared, but each has contributed to the history of photography in Bali in his own way.

In 1938-1939, another artist, Arthur Fleischmann, came to Bali. He sculpted and took superb photographs as well. These are some of the earliest images we have of the daily life of the Balinese—many unposed and quite candid (he is not represented in this show).

And the tourist’s gaze also brought us many anonymous, yet equally important, images.

We hope that this small collection of photographs will show you the early development of photography in Bali as seen through predominantly amateur and unknown eyes. This is the first in a series of this kind of exhibition.

Thank you.

-Rucina Ballinger
rucina at
742 7977

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