Emerging Balinese contemporary artist Ketut Nugi captured my attention in a group exhibition, ‘Documenting Perspective’ at Nonfrasa Gallery in Ubud that took place July-August 2022. Showcased within a display cabinet, ‘Irrational of Joy’ 2022 is a montage of colourful illustrations and old photographs that transports the imagination to the formative days of Dutch colonialism tourism (picture in your mind’s eye brochure photographs from the 1920s describing the iconic, beautiful traditional Bali). His painterly style was refreshing. Strong composition structure, rapid brush strokes and intriguing content revealed a talented artist with a distinct style and, most importantly, something relevant to say.

The quality of Nugi’s images, combined with its distinct anti-colonial sentiments, was intriguing. Anti-colonialism is an aspect of the Balinese psyche that is often hidden beneath the surface yet is alive in the underbelly of the people’s character. These anti-Western ideals have become more potent during the new millennium due to neo-colonialism defining much of the behaviour of foreigners in Bali.

I first encountered Nugi’s three-dimensional works a few months later in “It’s About TIME!” a group exhibition of emerging artists and art communities, part of DenPasar Art+Design 2022 (DPS22) at CushCush Gallery, Denpasar, during October and November. ‘Tourism Par Excellence’, 2022, 200 x 100 x 40cm, is a traditional signboard with a corrugated iron roof. The phrase, YOUR LUXURY OUR DISPLACEMENT, leapt out from the board, anchoring his composition describing four Dutch colonial soldiers carrying a Balinese shrine as if in a religious procession.

The reverse side read, BUILDING A NEW BALI, depicting part of the elaborate Ujung Water Palace in Karangasem, East Bali, built 1909-1921 by the King of Karangasem I Gusti Bagus Jelantik (1887-1966). The architects were a Dutchman van Den Hentz, a Chinese Loto Ang and a local undagi (Balinese architect). The palace was destroyed almost entirely by the eruption of Mount Agung in 1963 and the earthquake in 1975. Nugi’s thought-provoking phrase questions the direction of the new architectural style marking the beginning of the last century and the colonial era.

Plaisir et Jouissance’ 2023 (Pleasure and Enjoyment), exhibited at Nonfrasa earlier in 2023, highlighted the breadth of Nugi’s creativity. Emphasising his cynical viewpoint, the traditional signboard is constructed not standing upright yet is cleverly skewed to one side; the beautiful curves in the timber framework are aesthetically attractive. The composition describes a luxury Western dinner table setting. In contrast, on the opposite side of the notice board, the painting reveals a slender beauty wrapped in a sarong standing beachside. His paintings juxtapose illustrative imagery with biting commentary. Another composition, akin to a postcard depicts a traditional performer with the text, “Where the culture never sets?” 

Born in Gianyar in 1996, Nugi is a multi-discipline artist with a critical eye for composition structure and strong skills as an illustrator and maker of 3-Dimensional works. He graduated from the Indonesian Art Institute of Yogyakarta (ISI). Working as a graphic designer, Nugi is fascinated by Bali’s socio-historical development since the beginning of the colonial era. He has immersed himself in the creative output of the initial Bali image makers of the turn of the century, the iconic Mexican author and illustrator Miguel Covarrubias, and the German photographer Gregor Krause.

These internationally renowned visitors were definitive playmakers in creating the images and prose that helped define Bali’s marketing label as a utopian, tropical island paradise. This label was a powerful marketing strategy instrumental in capturing the attention of the early visitors, which was the initial step of the massive tourism juggernaut present today.

“Where the Culture never Sets?” Ketut Nugi
Image: Ketut Nugi

“My sociohistorical method of investigating culture is intended to trace back more deeply into past events to help establish the causes of present-day Bali. I believe revealing the factors that have shaped Bali into what it has become today is essential,” Nugi told me. “I re-examine the transformation of traditional creations, such as post-tourism Balinese sign boards. This sign board style seeks to translate modern commercial needs into a new identity taken from old traditional culture. Maybe that’s how the Balinese art statements and design has developed?”

An astute observer of the rapid transformation of Bali, especially during the multitude of fluctuations encountered in the first two decades of the new millennium, Nugi endeavours to help revive the collective memory of the wisdom of traditional culture and uphold sacred values while informing the younger generations of Balinese to be more analytical of the island’s rapid modernization.

Nugi questions the objectification of the sacred to the profane and the commodification of culture. His work is significant in helping pique the minds of the younger generation, many of whom aspire to a modern lifestyle of the once agrarian traditional culture now superseded by the capitalist service economy.

Instagram: @nugi.ketut

Richard Horstman

Richard Horstman

NOW! Bali Art Columnist, Richard Horstman, during the past decade has been contributing to national newspapers writing about art and culture. He is passionate about observing and reporting on developments in the local art and creative infrastructure, and the exciting emerging talent that is flourishing in Bali. IG: @lifeasartasia