Details of traditional balinese hindu temple.

The Exquisite and Exotic Wood Carvings of Bali

Artisans are preserving their cultural tradition of wood carving on the Island of the Gods.

Turning blocks of wood into intricate sculptures is a classic art form in Bali. Known as the Island of the Gods because of the preponderance of Balinese Hinduism in daily day life and architecture, Bali became the center of traditional Hindu-Javanese wood carving. Early wood carvings always portrayed religious themes, and later were intertwined with everyday life, turning a cultural heritage into a distinctive art form.

Crafting a Tradition

Prior to the 20th century, Balinese wood carvings were not intended for decorative home use as they are today. These hand-carved creations were mainly used in ceremonies, temples, and palaces. Ceremonial figurines depicting deities and masks were made to ward off evil spirits.

Traditional Balinese mask on a black background.

Balinese wood carving started about the 11th century with Buddhist and Hindu influences. It wasn’t until the 14th century that it flourished along with painting, gold and silversmithing, and stone carving by artisans of the Majapahit Kingdom, of which Bali was a colony. During this period, Hindu influence prevailed and continued the tradition of portraying religious mythology in art.

During the 1920s, Bali became an artist enclave with the arrival of western avant-garde artists such as Walter Spies of Germany, Rudolf Bonnet of The Netherlands, and Donald Friend of Australia. They helped create a renewed interest in wood carvings, and their influences later became adopted into the local wood carving designs and techniques.

Photo: Lucia Darmadi

The 1930s brought about a peak of creativity as young artists began honing their craft, taking advantage of the rising surge of tourism on the island. Visitors drawn to the tropical paradise were intrigued by the intricate wood carving craft, and many bought exotic souvenirs and prized pieces to decorate their homes and estates. Dutch traders introduced the carvings to The Netherlands, where its popularity increased into a sizable demand. Commercialization of the craft grew internationally, allowing local artisans to expand their artistic expression in creativity and techniques.

Photo: E. Rowley

Photo: Lucia Darmadi

Ethnologist and art historian, Miguel Covarrubias, described Balinese art in the 1930s as, “…a highly developed, although informal Baroque folk art that combines the peasant liveliness with the refinement of classicism of Hinduistic Java,” and that the art form had undergone a “liberating revolution” as Balinese artists began creating more scenes of rural life.

During the transition years of the 1930s and 40s, wood carvings reflected Balinese modernization. Art deco influences continued well into the 1970s. Guilds such as the Pitamaha Artist Guild was instrumental in the development of modern Balinese wood carving.

“Legong Dancer, Bali Indonesia”

Masters of this era included Ida Bagus Nyana, who gained a reputation for experimenting with mass in sculpture, including elongating body parts while shrinking others using simple daily life subjects, without overworking the wood. Tjokot became known for using the expressive quality inherent in wood, using gnarly tree trunks and logs, transforming them into sculptures with as little change as possible.

Ida Bagus Tilem pushed wood carving to another level, daring to alter his characters’ proportions while using the natural wood’s deformations to guide his carving and ultimately create expressions of human emotions. Tilem also trained many young sculptors in the village of Mas, teaching them how to select wood for its expressiveness that could create a dialog between humans and wood. This form of wood carving has become mainstream with today’s artisans, and Mas is regarded as the center of Balinese wood carving.

Intricately carved Balinese panels and figurines can be found worldwide as décor in homes, businesses, and major hotels and resorts. Wood carvings also continue to be created for their religious and ceremonial significance.

Swidagdo, CC BY-SA 3.0

Impact of Commercialism

As Balinese art became recognized internationally, more and more priceless works disappeared to other parts of Indonesia and foreign countries. The Balinese people feared losing their treasured heritage. A foundation called Pita Maha was formed in 1936 to bring back works to the place of origin and to improve artists’ skills without losing their Balinese identity. Subsequent foundations were created after WWII upholding Pita Maha ideals, and the need for a museum to preserve Balinese art grew in popularity. The Puri Lukisan Museum was opened in 1956, showcasing paintings and wood carvings and Balinese art’s significant historical developments.

A wide range of wood is used for Balinese woodcraft, such as albesia, jackfruit, crocodile wood, rain tree, and hibiscus, to more exotic varieties like sandalwood, teak, and mahogany. You can purchase Balinese carvings as mass-produced, inexpensive souvenirs to fine art quality hand-carved pieces ranging in price from about $200-$5,000.

The Master Wood Carver

Photo: Ada Garuda Gallery

Today, a living legend of Balinese wood carving is I Made Ada (pronounced “eye” “ma day”), a third-generation master woodcarver specializing in exquisitely hand-carved sculptures and three-dimensional panels. He is best known for crafting the Garuda, a symbol of peace. A bird-like creature, the Garuda is a vehicle to transport the Hindu god Vishnu. Made’s carved panels are highly detailed, including depictions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana stories, two major Sanskrit epics. Made’s Garuda and Balinese lion sculptures adorn presidential palaces, museums, and private residences worldwide. His art has been shared with heads of state such as Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Ronald Reagan, and was commissioned for works by Suharto.

Made has received international recognition for his craft and contribution to the art of Balinese wood carving. Major institutions around the world have exhibited his wood sculptures. CNN aired a television special on Made in 1999, and he was featured on television on the topic of “The Arts of Indonesia and where Art will need to go in the new millennia.” His works are crafted using the finest woods, including teak, jackfruit, ebony, rain tree, marbau, and sandalwood. Frequently used in his works are 22-karat gold paint and gold leaf. Prices for his hand-carved art can range from inexpensive to $20,000.  Watch the master at work creating his infamous Garuda:

Balinese wood carving could become a lost art as younger generations are drawn to more modern interests. Some see the value of learning the art and are dedicating their time to be trained. Bali’s master woodcarvers could not be more pleased to instruct them, keeping their art and cultural heritage alive.

Wooden pattern-manual with the image of enamoured pair