Art and Literature in Indonesia

Each island in the Indonesia archipelago has its own particular set of influences and distinctive style. The result is a rich and colorful national tapestry of visual and performance art. Bali is considered the forefront of Indonesian visual arts, and Lombok is the center of traditional craftsmanship or functional arts. Although yet to develop a global audience, Indonesian literature is the hidden gem of the archipelago’s culture.

Art Influences and Expressions

As an early cradle of civilization, Indonesian art history dates back to prehistoric times. Cave paintings dating back to 10,000 B.C. have been discovered in Sulawesi and East Kalimantan. Sulawesi also has sculptures from the megalithic era. Pottery was developed by the Buni in West Java as far back as 400 B.C. Wood carving began at several locations in prehistoric times and later flourished in Central Java and Bali. Javanese stone sculpture and architecture flourished in the 8th to the 15th centuries and brought about such masterworks as the temple of Borobudur.

More modern eras of artistic development coincided with the arrival of foreign traders and with them, European and Asian influences. Traditional dance, handicrafts, cinema, literature, painting, and music were all profoundly affected by the arrivals of other cultures, where they often found not only inspiration but support and patronage.

Balinese painting is a great example. Until 1920, Balinese painting was based largely on the retelling of religious stories from Indian texts the Ramayana and the Mahabharata; or simply done at the bequest of royalty. This was the classic Wayan or Kamasan style. With the arrival of expat Dutch and Germans in the 1920’s, the art scene saw a revolution in styles, colors, and materials.

Painting underwent a seismic change into the depiction of scenes from real life, and though still distinctly Balinese, the paintings took a place on the world art stage as excellent examples of indigenous folk art. Around this time, the center of art on Bali moved from Kamasan in East Bali to Ubud. Noted expat artists such as Walter Spies, Miguel Covarrubias, and Donald Friend began their own peak period of avant-garde works while living in and supporting the Balinese arts community. The great Ubud artist Gusti Nyoman Lempad became the icon of modern traditionalist Balinese painting, which is still thriving today.

Wood carving also grew into a celebrated art in Bali in the same time period as painting. The Pitamaha Artist Guild was a driving force in paintings and wood carving. Local masters included Ida Bagus Nyana, known for originality and experimentation with mass, and Tjokot, known for finding the inherent expressive qualities of unique pieces of wood. The village of Mas became the center of the wood carving craft.

In Lombok, artistic tradition manifested itself in the form of incredibly detailed and beautiful work in traditional handicrafts. From the weaving of songket and cotton cloth to bamboo and wicker, and to pottery and wood-carving; the Sasak culture found inspiration and purpose in functional art objects used in everyday life - a tradition which still goes on today. A governmental aid plan in cooperation with New Zealand has allowed the village artisan life in Lombok to be handed down over generations just as it has always been, and has been essential in preserving the cultural legacies of the island.

Museums and Venues

Fortunately for visitors, Indonesia’s art scene is widely accessible in museums, galleries, performance venues, and traditional villages. Jakarta is home to the new Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara. It’s billed as Indonesia’s first museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art and features 800 different works. At the opposite end of the spectrum, National Museum of the Republic of Indonesia in Jakarta is Southeast Asia’s first and largest museum and holds a vast collection of prehistoric and early century sculpture, pottery, and artworks.

Bali has some of Indonesia’s finest art exhibits. The Bali Museum in Denpasar has four galleries with exhibits of Balinese music and dance items, such as theatrical masks, gamelan instruments, and Barong costumes; the history of Balinese textiles, and ancient sculptures and pottery. Ubud has a great selection of art museums including the Neka Art Museum, which has an excellent and diverse collection displaying the history of Balinese painting. The nearby Agung Rai Museum of Art displays traditional and contemporary works by Balinese, Indonesian, and other artists.

Visit the village of Mas, just south of [Ubud](, to see wood carving in action and shop for authentic pieces. For traditional dance, the Ubud Palace area has exhibitions of different dances nightly, and tickets can be purchased easily from street corner hawkers. Check out the kecak fire dance at sunset at Uluwatu Temple for an amazing experience.

In Lombok, you can book tours to visit traditional craft villages, each with a specialty craft. Often tours combine multiple villages or include stops at other attractions like waterfalls. Sade Traditional Village offers an immersive experience that includes weaving, traditional dance, martial arts, and music. Penujak Village allows a great opportunity to experience the entire pottery creation process, from forming to burning to finishing - with all steps done in traditional methods and without the use of machines. Sukarara Weaving Village is where to go to learn about Tenun Tradisional Lombok (traditional weaving), and is the island’s largest producer of beautiful songket cloth. Loyok Village is known for bamboo wickerwork. If you are looking for higher end crafts, Mataram Sekarbela Pearl Center is a mecca of craftsmen making beautifully designed pearl jewelry pieces.


Indonesian literature is an equally ancient tradition, but is little known compared to painting and weaving. Some of this is due purely to a translation issue — that is, very little of this literature has been translated and thus popularized to Western and English-speaking readers. There is a rich tradition of storytelling in the many cultures of the archipelago — and it’s not just “Eat, Pray, Love”.

Much of the tradition from Jakarta — and also Bali and Lombok — goes back to lontars. In the 10th century A.D., the writing was shared among the islands on the leaves of the lontar palm. These palm leaf documents were the basis for religious texts, law books, folklore, and other forms of knowledge.

With the coming of Dutch colonists, more traditional Western forms such as novels, short stories, and poetry were introduced. In order to control information, the Dutch established Balai Pustaka, the Bureau for Popular literature, in 1920. A combination publisher and censor, the Bureau helped control the population by controlling what was published and read.

Along with fiction and drama, themes found in Indonesian, Balinese, and Lombok literature included epic histories and love stories about kings, princes, and knights, along with love poetry.

As more tourist and expat influence came upon the islands, themes of interaction with Western and Indonesian cultures were reflected in the literature. A number of writers settled on Bali and wrote books that became early sensations, drawing more visitors to the island. Louise G. Koke (Our Hotel in Bali) and Hickman Powell (The Last Paradise) are two of note.

In modern times, the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, which began in 2002, has grown into one of the world’s most celebrated literary and artistic events. With a mission to promote Indonesian writers and transcend borders, the Festival has become a sought-after destination for the literary elite from around the world.

Popular Indonesian writers include Pramoedya Ananta Toer (This Earth of Mankind); Seno Gumira Ajidarma, a pioneer in new generation of Indonesian literature and author of In the Name of Evening; and Asma Nadia Salon Kepribadian, an author of novels and short stories, the founder of the Forum Lingkar Pena, and manager of Asma Nadia Publishing House.


Controversial issues are not easy to discuss in Indonesia mostly due to political, religious, and cultural differences. During the New Order regime of Indonesian President Suharto from 1966-1998, suppression of dissenting voices was common and considered a move towards regional stability. Art, literature, and dialogue about the reality of ethnic, religious, racial, and sexual relations were heavily discouraged, and in some cases was illegal.

In the modern era, Indonesians more openly express these ideas but there are still ongoing issues in the struggle between conservatism in religious faiths and modern liberal tendencies that have led to censorship.

Steps towards guaranteed freedom of expression have been taken. In 1999, the Human Rights Law was passed, followed by a second constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to free expression in 2000. Indonesia ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2005. Literature received a helpful hand in 2010 when the Constitutional Court voided a 1963 booking-banning law.

Unfortunately, contradicting laws have been passed or continue to be enforced. The 2008 Anti-Pornography Law criminalizes eroticism in the visual, literary, and performing arts. Recently, the government has begun to enforce this stricture more forcefully online. Hardline Islamic organizations protest against artists and exhibitions viewed as corrupting to the nation’s morality through an emphasis on sexuality or homosexuality.

The 1965 Law on Defamation of Religion is used to limit provocative religious-themed art and literature. Artists have been threatened or prosecuted for creations deemed offensive to the prophet Muhammad. The largely Muslim police forces often enforce censorship directly through arrests, or indirectly, by failing to provide security services to those speaking or performing at controversial events.

Cultural mores are another issue. Patriarchal culture has led to the suppression of women artists. In Lombok, for example, female writers of short stories and poetry are often prevented from expressing opinions that contradict or offer an alternative to societal norms. The struggle for truly free expression in Indonesia is ongoing.

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