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An afternoon of tea, pisang goreng, and feminism with artist Satya Cipta

Artist Satya Cipta

“I was curious to know if you grew up with art,” I said, sipping Indonesian black tea and glancing languorously at the pisang goreng (fried banana) that the artist Satya Cipta offered me.

“I have heard that your gift was to be a healer,” I continued, referencing Cipta’s affinity for traditional healing, which was believed to be a gift from the Balinese gods.

Cipta burst into a crystalline, childlike laugh, and immediately brought a hand to her mouth: “I cannot say that I’m a healer. I try to help others to help themselves. But yes, I do have that gift. And I use that to help those who need my ability.”

Turning on the recorder and letting my stare linger on the goddesses and gods emerging from the works hanging on her studio’s red walls, I blurted out, “It seems that your art comes from a different dimension.”

This seems to echo how people both within and outside the art world view Cipta’s paintings: surreal, haunting, piercing, and spiritual. While the artist mostly uses the traditional Batuan painting technique (a major Balinese art style), she also experiments with other mediums, such as smoke and charcoals.

Initially, when I was walking around the housing compound in Ubud, looking for her studio, I found her focused, sitting cross-legged on the ground, in front of her laptop on a low table. She has a small frame, with a lovely round face and elegant eyes, and when she spoke she seemed lost in thought. She struck me as a whimsical personality but one that could be suddenly transformed into a powerful force when speaking of injustices and social issues that she felt compelled to fight for.

After speaking, it was clear that Cipta was the kind of artist who mediated both her everyday and spiritual experiences in her works. I was convinced that this was why Andonowati, the founder of Bandung-based gallery Artsociates, has added Cipta to the gallery’s roster and is organising the artist’s first big solo show at Lawangwangi Art Space in November. 

But it’s not just that. It’s important to speak about Cipta’s work, because her practice is in line with a shift in the art world, something I’ve also observed in the past Venice Biennale. There is a sense that the growing representation of women—in art and hopefully beyond—is finally challenging the patriarchy that has run the world so far. 

For Cipta, creation is not tied to what the art world considers as trendy. Sure, one can say that she provides feminist retellings of ancient myths and legends, but the truth is that her entire being is invested in matters of the spirit. 

In her pursuit of spiritual transcendence, she explores mythological archetypes, focusing on female figures that the patriarchy once represented as evil, or which had been sidelined in interpretations of ancient tales. 

Cipta’s work features mainly Rangdas and Durgas, who are female figures of Balinese and Hindu theatre and mythology, and who are traditionally depicted as evil. These figures are framed as metaphorical voices in her paintings, and through them, she evokes the trauma experienced by herself and generations of Balinese women.

Read on for the rest of my conversation with Cipta, who enlightens me about her relationship with art and womanhood.

Can you tell me about your childhood, and how it influenced your art?

In my childhood, I have always preferred staying in my room daydreaming, rather than engaging with people and joining family gatherings. I have been thinking about the Universe since I was five and have lots of questions about it.

Also, I moved around a lot as a child. I was born in Lombok, then lived in Bali for a while, then went back to Sumatra again for two years, and then went to Jakarta to study. When my parents left me with my grandmother in Lombok, I threw myself into several activities to compensate for the feelings of abandonment. At that time I couldn’t understand that my parents were away because of work. However, this helped me focus on my art and developed my character as an introvert.

So after moving around quite a bit, you decided to relocate to Bali. Why did you make that decision? 

I have to tell you the truth. My parents wanted me to marry a Balinese man, but I had a relationship with a Japanese guy who worked in film. My parents—who also discouraged me from being an artist—were not happy about it. 

After that, I moved to Bali and got engaged with someone else entirely; an architect from there. I did it just to prove to my parents that I wouldn’t be happy to do it their way. So there I was, married with children, but he was abusive, and finally, I got divorced. Sadly, in Bali, the children belong to men. I could not win the case, so I lost my children.

Did you manage to put that experience into your art?

It was very painful, and that was the moment when I felt compelled to do something with art. During my marriage, I learned Batuan painting techniques from the village master. I just learned the technique and [expressed] my own ideas of female goddesses and legends. It wasn’t easy, because the artist community in the village where I was living seemed to dislike me, as I was an outsider. 

I also learned very fast, and other artists didn’t like this. So I got rejected from the local shows the community was organising. I attempted three times, and finally, I decided to approach the curator and asked him, “Who the hell are you? Why did you reject my painting? What’s wrong with my painting?”

He said that there was nothing wrong with them and that my art was cool, but he never saw anything like it, so he didn’t really understand it. After that discussion, we finally became friends. It took that confrontation for me to get in, and the funny thing is that I’ve heard from the grapevine that some artists from that community keep my paintings on their phones and copy them.

Can you tell me a bit about the symbolism in your works, such as Red Lotus?

The work Red Lotus is a distortion of a woman’s body. It speaks to how we as women have this superpower to give birth to other human beings. But in reality, we are not always so happy to fulfil this role, especially when, in my opinion, many of us lead harder lives than men.

In the painting, the act of feeding the baby symbolises how we feed humanity as mothers. The lotus also symbolises our gracefulness as women and our struggle to remain balanced in the world. The lotus flower typically floats on the water’s surface, while its roots are just below. 

Style-wise, I use the Balinese Sigar Mangsi technique to draw lines with charcoal. This means blending out the charcoal to create a gradation and emphasise the drawing’s outline.

Initially, because you were using a traditional technique, but with your own take on Balinese mythologies, you were misunderstood by that traditional village community. From my understanding, Bali wants to preserve its cultural traditions, but generally speaking, there is also a need to update traditions to suit contemporary society. Where do you stand in this discussion?

I feel people have to change their understanding of traditional techniques. My art is not traditional painting.

I might use traditional techniques. but it doesn’t mean that this is a traditional painting. My art is my self-expression, so for me, it’s contemporary artwork.

However, most people keep viewing it as traditional. In my community, I have to constantly defend myself from the idea that I’m inauthentic because of this. [In terms of preserving tradition], I wanted to learn the Batuan painting technique because it’s something that belongs to my tradition and country, but I wanted to bring it into the contemporary realm. 

Mythologies, womanhood, and visceral feelings are at the centre of your art. How do you start tackling them?

For me, it’s about reflecting on my feelings, as well as talking with the women here in Bali, whether it’s priestesses or farmers, and start asking about their life. I mostly see that they are not happy about their lives, because of the oppressive culture limiting their freedom. As a woman in Bali, you have a number of obligations.

Has this been your experience as well?

Yes. That happened to me. I have felt that burden on my own shoulders. It’s tough to be an artist, as a Balinese woman, because you have to do lots of tasks (such as making offerings and cleaning temples) from the morning until night sometimes and participate in many traditional ceremonies—unless you leave the community and become an outcast. 

Though, if you are rich, and you can pay someone to do the ceremonies for you. Alternatively, you might marry a foreigner, which may give you the freedom to lead a different life. Aside from these three scenarios, [I feel] there are not many other options. If you want to be part of the community, you’ll have always obligations and you don’t have time to solely develop yourself. 

Would you call yourself a feminist?

I get asked this question quite often, and I cannot say that I am a feminist, because what I understand about feminism, is that women want to overcome men. I disagree with that. In my opinion, I only want us to have the same chances in life. 

Yes, to get the same chances. That’s precisely what feminism is all about.

But if you want to have that chance [to lead your own life], you have to use your brain. Many women around here don’t even have access to the education it takes to acquire various skills. The first step to me is awareness, and we must understand our body, and ourselves so that we can decide what to do.

That’s my understanding of what is called “feminism”. But I don’t feel part of that. I’m just trying to share an awareness of what means to be female, and how to live harmoniously in a society that is run by males and gives little chance to women. 


Click here to learn more about the artist.

Catch the artist’s exhibition Sekala Niskala, which runs from 18 April to 25 June 2023, at Footscray Community Arts in Melbourne, Australia. Her first solo show at Lawanwangi Art Space in Bandung is scheduled for November 2023. 

Feature image courtesy of the artist.

An earlier version of this article made a reference to the artist learning painting techniques from her ex-husband. This reference has since been removed.

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