About David Irons

Communications on Bali’s Arts and Culture

I work with writers, scholars, curators, and institutions on articles, books, web sites, exhibitions, foundation grants, and other projects focused on the arts and culture of Bali.  I also advise universities, foundations, museums, and individuals, as well as media and technology start-ups, on strategic communications.

 - David Irons and Rucina Ballinger at the October 2013 opening of “Ketut Madra and 100 Years of Balinese Wayang Painting”

David Irons and Rucina Ballinger at the October 2013 opening of “Ketut Madra and 100 Years of Balinese Wayang Painting”

Since 1974, I’ve developed and curated six exhibitions of Balinese art. The first was “Legendary Paintings of Bali” at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum soon after I returned from Indonesia, followed quickly by two smaller shows in other venues. More recently, “Ketut Madra and 100 Years of Balinese Wayang Painting” went up at the Ubud’s Museum Puri Lukisan in September 2013. The following year, I worked with Soemantri Widagdo and Bruce Carpenter on their exhibition and catalogue, “Lempad of Bali: The Illuminating Line,” at the same museum. In 2016, the Indonesian Consulate in New York invited and hosted “The Storytelling Art of Bali,” with 21 paintings, mostly created in the village of Kamasan in the 19th and 20th centuries.

How I got here: An abbreviated account of key elements of my first year in Bali

*This should be at the top. This page can be chronological?*
I arrived in Bali for the first time in January 1973, after a year sailing the South Pacific. I knew next to nothing about Bali. I soon landed in a small bungalow at Puri Agung in Peliatan, where I would live for most of the next 12 months.  After helping to deliver a racing yacht from Hawai’i to Australia for the Sydney-Hobart Race, I’d spent 12 months on three different sailboats and working in Australia and New Zealand. I was on my way home from Darwin; Bali was the first stop; I planned to stay for just three weeks before heading to Java, on to Singapore, and then overland to Europe. I found I didn’t want to leave. And events conspired to ensure I didn’t need to go.

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Bali enveloped me with serendipity. I instantly found part-time volunteer work with the Mudraswara Foundation in Ubud. Its need for English language skills led to my learning Indonesian quickly. Its focus on the preservation of traditional Balinese culture gave me immediate “inside” access to performances, places, and people that I otherwise could never have encountered. Its library was full of books on Bali’s history and culture that I devoured.

Following what felt like three years of experience immersed in three intense weeks, I knew I must renew my three-month tourist visa, or leave and re-enter from Singapore with a new one. I also knew it was impossible to renew a tourist visa. Two days before the deadline I stood in a long line of young westerners winding toward a single Imigrasi officer who was casually stamping every passport presented to him with an “Exit Required” vermilion seal. I almost left the line to go start packing. I reached his desk, he opened my passport and raised the stamp, paused, smiled, and said in Indonesian, “You have a six-month visitors’ visa. If you come back in six months, I can renew it for six more.” I thanked him and decided to stay for a year.

Three weeks before that I’d been visiting with Agung Rai, then a hustling 18 year old high-school graduate, at his family’s modest compound in Peliatan. It seemed he knew every painter in all the villages near Ubud and almost every morning he would carry a dozen or so paintings to Kuta to sell to travelers on the beach. Above the sofa where he sat, I saw a painting that struck me as containing the essence of what Balinese story-telling art was all about.

I asked if it was for sale. He laughed and said “Never.” He said he thought of it as a centerpiece of his collection which would one day become a museum. Ten days later, as we approached each other riding motorcycles on Peliatan’s empty main street, he waved me down to stop beside him. “Do you still want that Hanoman painting,” he asked. “There are two others I need to buy.”

We rode to his home; I then went back to Puri Agung, hung my first Ketut Madra painting on the wall of my bungalow; got back on my bike and rode to Madra’s home about 900 meters south of the puri. I told him I’d just bought his “Hanoman and Surya” from Agung Rai and was welcomed as an old friend. He told stories from his paintings of Bali’s mythology for two hours. I was soon visiting twice a week.

** this doesn’t flow.. When does this story pickup? Riding my motorcycle to Peliatan from the immigration office, I stopped at Madra’s home to give him the news. He’d just finished another painting for me. Again we talked for two hours. As I was leaving at sunset, he said, “Now you can visit more often.” Which I did for the next nine months.

Bali Arts

He knew I’d have to leave in December. There were no banks in Ubud then and he was not interested in making trips to Denpasar *the story about opening his first bank account, and the cash under his pillow? to manage banking business. So he eventually asked me what I thought he should do with all that cash. I said he’d taught me enough about Bali to answer that question: “Buy land.” He laughed too, and asked “Dry land or sawah?”
I said that was a much bigger question and I would have to give it some thought. Over the next couple of weeks, we discussed the relative merits of building a small thatched cottage or pondok that might evolve into a homestay or buying some rice fields that would assure that his family would always have enough to eat. One evening, shortly before sunset, I arrived from Puri Agung and he told me he wanted to show me something. We walked down to the open land south of Jalan Bima and made our way to the point where there was nothing but rice fields to the south and west.
We agreed instantly that it was the perfect place for a pondok that had the potential to give him a near-permanent “window to the west.” I sketched the floor plan that night.  A week later he bought the first few ‘are’ of what became the current homestay from the father of his future second wife, Ni Wayan Konderi. There was enough money left over to begin to clear and prepare the land and buy some building materials. Before leaving, I was able to give him $500 which he thought would be enough to complete the house.
Together, around the time of the melasti ceremony we came up with the phrase “a quiet place to learn about Bali” as the best way to describe the intention of that first small house and what it might become.
In the end, I never stayed there – or even saw the inside. When I finally returned in both 1988 and 1989, there was a long-term absent resident who had left it well padlocked. By the next time, in the early 90s, the pondok had been replaced with one of several more modern brick buildings as the Ketut Madra Homestay had become reality.
It did not matter. Since 1973, I’ve known I had a house, and a family, in Bali. I’ve returned about 20 times, and about once a year since 2009.

The Museum Puri Lukisan in Ubud welcomed more than 300 guests for the opening of “Ketut Madra and 100 Years of Balinese Wayang Painting.”The Museum Puri Lukisan in Ubud welcomed more than 300 guests for the opening of “Ketut Madra and 100 Years of Balinese Wayang Painting.”