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Ni Nyoman Tanjung: The Queen of Mount Agung in Bali

Ni Nyoman Tanjung

On display are painted volcanic stones, extraordinary dolls, and paper or metal cut-outs mounted and fastened on bamboo sticks, assembled by Balinese artist, Ni Nyoman Tanjung, simply known as Ni Tanjung.

Ni Tanjung is a Balinese woman of humble birth. She was born around 1930 in the eastern region of the island of Bali, Indonesia. She never learnt to read or write, but taught herself artistic expressions and gestures that she then carried out later in life. The elderly woman traversed many traumatic events, including personal dramas, which punctuated the period from 1942 onwards in Indonesia.

For decades, Ni Tanjung lived with her husband who was a simple farmer, along with their four children in a rudimentary wooden shack. She built a stone repository outside for her Gods and ancestors who, according to Balinese belief, visit the living during certain sacred rituals. These painted volcanic rocks resembled faces and the installations could be seen near their home, on the side of a small road in Budakeling, in Karangasem, Bali, on the slopes of Mount Agung, the principal volcano of the island.

In 2003, Georges Breguet – a Swiss biologist, collector, and author who was extremely knowledgeable about textiles, material art, and familiar with Bali – discovered what Ni Tanjung had assembled. He recognised her talent as an extraordinary, non-traditional artist. Breguet began collecting her more mobile pieces and introduced Ni Tanjung’s work to the outside world as an example of art brut. According to French Bali-based art expert, Jean Couteau, Ni Tanjung’s form of raw art – a term coined by deceased French artist Dubuffet to describe works created by non-traditional artists, distanced from mainstream society as a result of mental or social constraints – is very rare for Indonesians.

Artwork of Ni Nyoman

Ni Tanjung was very active and made complex offerings to the Gods, like many Balinese women usually do. She also danced rejang, sang, and chanted to traditional Balinese aria, while also creating her works. In addition, Ni Tanjung was a prolific weaver of textiles. She prefers to look at people with the help of a small mirror to avoid their direct gaze and to detect any evil intentions. She also fashions decorative headgear to crown her unruly hair. The gaunt old lady has extraordinarily long and mobile fingers, which help her handle and form her works from any kind of material.

Soon after, one of four children she had with her late husband, Ni Nyoman Kembang passed away. She became slightly deranged yet frenetically continued her work on those raw art pieces. However, two more of her children along with her husband later passed away too. She then started to spend most of her days curating more with paper, and even sometimes with metal.

During this time, Ni Tanjung decided to move to the hamlet of Saren Kauh, in Budakeling, Karangasem to live with her remaining daughter. Ni Tanjung contributes modestly to the household with the little money she earns from selling her paper creations. Javanese artist Kartika Affandi, daughter of famous Indonesian painter Affandi, bought one of Ni Tanjung’s stone installations. This was to be re-assembled at Kartika’s Museum of Women’s Art in Yogyakarta, Central Java. The proceeds contributed to Ni Tanjung’s tiny fortune, besides adding to the fame of the Balinese “artist”’ across Indonesia.

Artwork of Ni Nyoman

Ni Tanjung was temporarily moved to safe quarters near Ubud because Mount Agung began to violently erupt for a short period of time. Soon, she returned to the hamlet of Saren Kauh on the eastern coast of Bali. At present, she’s over 90 years old, yet continues her trance-like fabrication of paper objects, dolls, and even paintings on stones. She still chants while portraying her imaginary theatrical world of Gods and ancestors on temporary altars – many of the faces resembling self-portraits. The brilliant colours and imagery reflect the luxurious vegetation of Bali and the rich cultural heritage of her ancestors.

Usually in the solitude of her windowless room at night, lit by a single lamp bulb, Ni Tanjung draws thousands of imaginary, multi-coloured faces on paper given to her by visitors, including fellow Balinese artist Made Budhiana, and others who have gifted her acrylic paints, coloured pencils, and chalk crayons.

Other visitors brought – or continued to bring – scissors or special metal cutters for her to cut out images from paper or metal objects as well. Bamboo, growing nearby and dried, provide her the sticks on which she binds her paper cutouts. When on the island, Georges Breguet and his wife Lise bring medical supplies and household goods for her to share with her daughter. Breguet also acquired paper creations for the collection of the Museum of Art Brut in Lausanne, France. Ni Tanjung is now considered to be a major world art brut artist and her work is illustrated in the catalogue of the museum.

Lucas Djaou, who was introduced to the eccentric Balinese artist by Georges Breguet, was immediately mesmerised by Ni Tanjung’s dynamic and creative energy. He visited her several times, once in Ubud when she had to move away from the eruptions of Mount Agung, and several times in the hamlet. Djaou is constantly on the look-out for extraordinary artistic talents and is lucky to be able to cooperate with Patricia Dorfmann, the owner of Galerie Dorfmann in the Marais area of Paris, France. Their work together has spawned several intriguing exhibitions during the past years at the gallery.

The opening of the exhibition, simply called “Ni Tanjung, Queen of Mount Agung”, was curated by Lucas Djaou at Galerie Patricia Dorfmann, 61, rue de la Verrerie, 75004 Paris, France. It will run from January 30 until February 22, 2020. Specifically, on January 30, the exhibition is scheduled to start from 5-8pm at the gallery’s courtyard. Serious collectors can purchase Ni Tanjung’s art brut pieces as they’re on sale until February 22. Meanwhile, the gallery itself is open from Tuesday until Saturday, from 2-7pm.

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