Mask Maker Puts Bali’s Best Faces Forward
By Bill Brubaker
Special to The Washington Post
We knew Bali wasn’t only about dreamy beaches, late-night bars and cheesy T-shirt shops. So on our first visit here, in 1991, my wife and I left our beachfront hotel to explore a culture-rich region in the countryside, known for its galleries and artisan workshops.
“First, I’ll take you to the best mask maker in Bali,” our taxi driver announced as our day trip began. His “best” label made us uneasy; surely, we thought, we were headed to a place that sold gaudy, mass-produced masks, perhaps made by the driver’s favorite uncle.
Oh, how wrong we were.
Freddi and I have been collecting folk art for about 30 years, and our house is decorated with some 2,000 objects from holidays in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. We never cared much for masks, though, until that summer morning when we met Ida Bagus Anom in a village near Ubud, Bali’s cultural capital.
Ushering us into his studio, Anom strapped on a mask that depicted a witch with long fangs and a menacing scowl. Then he danced, playfully flailing his arms and making scary noises, demonstrating how the mask was used in the traditional Barong dance, which tells a popular Balinese story about a mythological character who is king of the spirits.
Anom’s masks were exquisite, finely carved and carefully painted with flourishes that included horsehair mustaches and mother-of-pearl teeth. We bought six (each costing about US$100) and suddenly had a new obsession. Bummed that we had booked our entire Indonesian holiday at that beach hotel, about an hour away, we vowed that if we ever returned to the island we would stay in artsy Ubud.
Seventeen years and 250 masks later, we returned this summer with our 15-year-old daughter, Gabriela, checking into Ubud’s Hotel Tjampuhan & Spa, a sprawling compound that manages to be intimate, with traditional Balinese bungalows nestled into lush, tropical gardens.
Our two-story bungalow was once owned and occupied by Walter Spies (1895-1942), a German painter who helped spark an art resurgence here in the 1930s. We had a blissful view of a lily pond from our veranda. But there was little time to linger. After breakfast that first morning, we hired a car and driver (a terrific bargain at $6 an hour) to take us to Mas, the woodcarvers’ village where we had met Anom.
Googling him in recent years, I learned that Anom is revered as a traditional mask dancer as well as a mask maker. I also discovered that he once appeared in a National Geographic TV show that showcased Bali and that his fans include Peter Brook, the British film and theater director. As with many artisans here, Anom learned his craft from his father, who in turn learned it from his father.
We asked our driver to take us straight to Ida Bagus Anom’s studio. He nodded, then took us instead to the workshop of another mask maker, Ida Bagus Padang Rata. (Warning to collectors trying to track down Balinese artists: Pay close attention to their names, which are often similar. Ida Bagus, for example, is a name given to male members of a particular Hindu caste. Although Indonesia is the largest Muslim nation in the world, Bali is decidedly Hindu.)
Ida Bagus Padang Rata (no relation to Ida Bagus Anom) showed us a fearsome Barong mask. It was well done, but it didn’t move us. After 17 years of sizing up masks, we’ve become mighty picky.
“Uh, where does Ida Bagus Anom live?” I asked Padang Rata.
“Right over there,” he said, pointing to a house nearby.
We found Anom in the same spot where we had encountered him in 1991, sitting on a covered patio near a pile of wood shavings, quietly carving and chatting with several of his assistants.
Anom, 56, didn’t seem to remember us, perhaps because my hair is a bit grayer now, so Freddi and I introduced ourselves, then Gabriela. We told him how thoroughly we enjoyed our masks. Breaking into a huge smile, he took us back to his studio where the walls were covered with masks, all for sale.
“You’ll see that some of the styles and designs have changed since you were here last,” Anom told us in fluent English.
Yes, I had noticed; Anom had fewer traditional masks, depicting characters such as kings and queens and prime ministers, who play key roles in some Balinese dances.
He explained that while he still produces a full range of traditional masks for local dance troupes, his focus now is on characters who have greater appeal to foreigners.
“Like this one,” Anom said, strapping on a mask that depicts a yawning clown. “And this one,” he said, suddenly turning himself into a green, bug-eyed frog.
“Masks are like psychotherapy,” Anom said. “You put them on and you feel different. A psychiatrist I know from the United States has bought masks from me to put on her patients. She said it transforms them.”
Our collection includes many kinds of masks, including some, like Anom’s frog, that were made to hang on collectors’ walls and others that have been “danced,” collector-speak for masks that actually have been worn by local people in rituals or festivals.
“I put 40 coats of paint on my masks,” Anom told us. “I’ll sandpaper them, put 20 coats on, then sandpaper them again and put another 20 coats on. All of my masks are made from pule, a wood that’s light so the masks won’t be heavy when you put them your face.”
Masks have been essential elements of Balinese rituals for centuries. In his 1937 book Island of Bali, renowned Mexican painter and frequent Bali visitor Miguel Covarrubias wrote that masks used in the Barong dance, for example, “have great power in themselves and are kept out of sight in a special shed in the death temple of the village. They are put away in a basket, wrapped in magic cloth that insulates their evil vibrations, and are uncovered only when actually in use, when the performer-medium is in a trance and under the control of a priest.” In Bali, like everywhere else, master craftsmen such as Anom could disappear if their work isn’t embraced by new generations. I asked Anom about the future of mask making on the island.
“We’ll be OK,” he said. “There are many younger people in Bali who are carving. And there is demand. We have so many dance troupes here. And there’s also demand from tourists. The tourist industry here is doing well.”
A picturesque town built around rivers, valleys and rice paddies, Ubud was indeed buzzing the week we visited in August. Traditional masked dance performances were playing to standing-room-only audiences, and reservations were necessary at many restaurants. Most of the tourists seemed to come from Australia, Japan and Europe.
Like the rest of Bali, Ubud seems to have recovered from the tourism meltdown that followed terrorist attacks on the island’s beach communities in 2002 and 2005. Tourism industry officials here were buoyed by the U.S. State Department’s decision in May to discontinue its travel warning, which urged Americans to defer nonessential travel to Indonesia.
“After both of the attacks, everyone in Bali was sitting around like this,” Anom said, folding his arms, dropping his head and making a sad face that looked like one of his masks. “But now we’re almost back to normal.”
We left Anom’s studio with seven masks, averaging about $90 apiece. We visited several other mask makers that week, but none had the style of Anom. Just as the cabbie told us that long-ago summer morning, he’s the best that Bali has to offer.
WHERE TO STAY: We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at the lushly landscaped Hotel Tjampuhan & Spa, where thatch-roofed rooms range from $103 to $212, taxes and service charge included. The latter rate gets you the two-story bungalow of the late German artist Walter Spies; reserve several months or more in advance. Links to Ubud hotel Web sites are at www.ubudhotelsassociation.com/members.html.
WHERE TO EAT: Day or night, it’s fun prowling Ubud’s main streets, checking out the restaurant menus. There are dozens of choices. We especially liked the Indonesian and international menu at Cafe Lotus, which overlooks — surprise! — a lotus pond.
WHAT TO DO: Traditional shows with masked dancers can be found almost every night in Ubud, Bali’s cultural capital. The outdoor setting at the Ubud Palace, still home to the local royal family, is unbeatable. Buy tickets (about $9) in advance. Ubud also is known for galleries that sell textiles and paintings by local and expatriate artists.
MASK SHOPPING: Ubud’s central market offers some mass-produced examples; bargain hard. For the finest work, hire a taxi by the hour and browse the workshops in Mas, the nearby village known for its woodcarvers. Most drivers know how to find master mask maker Ida Bagus Anom on the main drag in Mas; just in case, his phone number is 974529.
MORE INFORMATION: Grab a copy of Balinese Masks: Spirits of an Ancient Drama ($19.46, plus shipping, on Amazon.com). For an overview on Balinese life and culture, pick up Island of Bali, the 1937 classic by the late Mexican painter and part-time Bali resident Miguel Covarrubias ($18.96, plus shipping, on Amazon.com). And don’t leave home without a Lonely Planet guidebook to Bali or Indonesia.Filed under: Travel & Culture