Sally Smart’s Manifesto in Bali

Julia Winterflood describes Asialink Arts alumna and Vice Chancellor’s Fellow Sally Smart’s new solo exhibition Manifesto in Ubud, Bali. The inter-disciplinary exhibition and performance is the product of transnational connections developed from 15 years of working with Indonesian artists.

It’s a sweltering Saturday afternoon on the cusp of the monsoon season at Setia Darma House of Masks and Puppets in Kemenuh, Bali, Indonesia. Above the village, which lies just under ten kilometres southeast of Ubud, the sun is cloaked in clouds that tease with rain. Setia Darma’s ampitheatre is fringed with traveller’s palms and has a backdrop of rice fields and coconut trees. At even intervals across its stage stand six identical bamboo frames containing collages of brightly coloured solid and checkered material – red, pink, light and dark blue contrast boldly with the verdant landscape.

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Exhibition view of Manifesto, 2019, Sally Smart's solo exhibition at Kayu Lucie Fontaine, Bali
Courtesy of the artist and Kayu Lucie Fontaine. Photo by Evelyn Pritt  @pritt.photo

A young woman’s voice resounds across the ampitheatre. In a timbre rich with local lore, she warns against the quest for individual truth and encourages collective harmony. Though her song is for a Balihan (a non-sacred Balinese performance), her costume is contemporary. A disk of yellow diamonds is affixed to her left shoulder, a disk of red and pink diamonds on her right. A solid apron of converging black and white patterns is tied to her front, and rests over a checkered sarong.

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Exhibition view of Manifesto, 2019, Sally Smart's solo exhibition at Kayu Lucie Fontaine, Bali
Courtesy of the artist and Kayu Lucie Fontaine. Photo by Evelyn Pritt  @pritt.photo

Meanwhile, in a vast joglo of Javanese teak with columns dressed in colourful sheathes, five dancers in similar costumes respond to her sonorous voice. With the intricate, theatrical movements of Balinese dance – some of them transfixed by wooden masks – the dancers heed the call and join her on stage, where they weave around each other and the bamboo frames.

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Exhibition view of Manifesto, 2019, Sally Smart's solo exhibition at Kayu Lucie Fontaine, Bali
Courtesy of the artist and Kayu Lucie Fontaine. Photo by Evelyn Pritt  @pritt.photo

The dance troupe’s mesmerising performance, and the transformative costumes and installations, make up leading Australian contemporary artist Sally Smart’s new solo exhibition Manifesto. Presented by Kayu – Lucie Fontaine’s branch in Indonesia – it runs from December 7 to 30 2019. (The performance, however, was one-off).

Smart is recognised internationally for large-scale cut-out assemblage installations and increasingly, performance and video. Her practice engages identity politics and the relationships between the body, thought and culture, including transnational ideas that have shaped cultural history.

Manifesto is imbued with the transnational connections developed during her 15 years of working with Indonesian artists, in Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Sarang in Central Java, and now for the first time here in Bali. “Indonesia has played quite a large role in the evolution of my practice from visual art to visual art that incorporates theatre,” Smart explained.

Her relationship with Indonesia began in 2005, when one of her installations was exhibited at Jogja Bienalle. As she was unable to attend, a revered contemporary artist from Yogyakarta, Entang Wiharso, was assigned to install her work. When he travelled to Melbourne the following year for a residency, he tracked her down, and friendship bloomed. In 2016, supported by a grant from Asialink Arts, Smart collaborated with Waharso on an exhibition for the National Gallery in Jakarta.

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Exhibition view of Manifesto, 2019, Sally Smart's solo exhibition at Kayu Lucie Fontaine, Bali
Courtesy of the artist and Kayu Lucie Fontaine. Photo by Evelyn Pritt  @pritt.photo

“I’ve always made art that’s enabled me to make connections with other artists in the world – that’s a very strong part of my practice, Smart affirmed. “These friendships and networks are very dynamic. We work very hard to build relationships through art. We work hard to explore the places that we’re in and to explore art locally and internationally.”

A relationship that was crucial to Manifesto’s development is Smart’s connection with Marco Cassani, an Italian conceptual artist who has lived in Bali since 2008. Cassani facilitates the art program Kayu, and Manifesto is its tenth exhibition at Setia Darma. “Every time an artist exhibits their work through Kayu, they are dealing with the context of where the exhibition is,” Cassani explained.

“We try to challenge the artist to make a new body of work connected to both their practice and the location itself,” he continued. Along with numerous conceptual contributions, Cassani facilitated the participation of the dancers – all students of the Indonesian Institute of the Arts, Denpasar – along with their dalang (director).

Although Smart’s costumes are stitched with threads of influence from the Ballet Russes, American painter and graphic artist Robert Rauschenberg, and Italian futurism, the checkered pattern on the dancers’ sarongs and bamboo-framed collages is deeply connected to Bali.

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Exhibition view of Manifesto, 2019, Sally Smart's solo exhibition at Kayu Lucie Fontaine, Bali
Courtesy of the artist and Kayu Lucie Fontaine. Photo by Evelyn Pritt  @pritt.photo

Known locally as saput poleng, the black and white checkered material is draped around large trees standing in sacred areas such as temples, crossroads and cremation sights, as well as around smaller shrines in Balinese compounds. It’s also worn as clothing, both sacred and non-sacred. The black and white embodies the Balinese philosophy of Rwa Bhineda, which at its simplest can be understood as yin and yang. “When I first came to Bali I loved the poleng, and its articulation – the wrapping of trees. I’ve done many works with trees, and the pattern is similar to gingham, which I’ve used in my practice for the last 30 years.”

The richly-textured hybridization of art and culture is Manifesto’s most compelling element. Smart’s collaboration with the Balinese dancers and the dalang, along with her engagement with local culture, compels us to consider the possibilities for gaining a deeper understanding of Indonesia through art. She believes that many Australians with a long and strong connection to the archipelago have worked creatively with Indonesians.

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Exhibition view of Manifesto, 2019, Sally Smart's solo exhibition at Kayu Lucie Fontaine, Bali
Courtesy of the artist and Kayu Lucie Fontaine. Photo by Evelyn Pritt  @pritt.photo

“We’re such close neighbours and we share so many things in our cultures which are so simpatico,” Smart contended. “All the connections are very rich, all the connections are real. There’s an openness and a willingness within the art community because it’s active. These relationships have existed for a long time. But how we do make that manifest?”

It’s no surprise that one of the audience members commented post-performance, “I’ve never seen anything like this in Bali.”

Sally Smart is enriching Australia’s relationship with Indonesia check by check.