A few months back, I went to the Bali exhibit at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. The small island of Bali has been conquered over and over. But they keep incorporating their invaders’ strengths while maintaining their unique culture. As a result, their traditional and modern dance, sculpture, painting, leather, metalworking, and music draw visitors and purchasers from all over the world.
The words translated (by Ursula LeGuin) as “soft” and “weak” in Lao-Tzu’s poem might be better read as “flexible” and “adaptable.” The Balinese have always been supremely adaptable. About 90% of Balinese are officially Hindu, but it’s their own kind of Hinduism. It was brought to them from India, and they mixed it with Buddhism and nature-based traditional belief systems.
Starting in the 1840s, Dutch armies and navies arrived to take over the island. In the early 1900’s, thousands of Balinese came out to oppose the Dutch, unarmed, and were massacred. Before World War II, the Japanese conquered the island; the Dutch returned after the war. Finally in the 60s, the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia killed an estimated 80,000 Balinese opponents.
Somehow, the Balinese have made the best of horrible situations. In their art, they incorporated ideas from Western painters like the Mexican Miguel Covarrubias and expanded their range of subject matter to create one of the richest artistic cultures in the world.
At the SF exhibition, organizers had brought puppeteers from Bali who explained their art and performed. I heard snatches of several languages (e.g. French, Mandarin) from the performers, who apparently play all over the world. Their ancient art spoke to me as if they were talking about modern life, which I guess they were in a poetic way. In spite of their suffering, the people of Bali have prevailed, more by including their conquerors’ ways than by fighting them.