Keeping the craft alive: weaving leaves into new dimensions

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How do some traditions stay while others die? Why can some knowledge be passed on to the next generation while others are lost forever in time?

On an island where culture is truly alive it’s easy to assume that traditions will remain forever, but that’s not the case. To stay, they have to adapt. Change, ironically, is the one constant thing, and when it comes to the traditions of Bali’s craft scene, change has been the vehicle of both preservation and abandonment.

This is part 2 of a three part article on “Keeping the Craft Alive”, please read all three parts Download our free May-June edition here.

Part 2: Creation in new dimensions

Unlike the textile weaving industry, Bali’s leaf weaving craft needed no help for revival. It persists in local communities as a daily necessity. Indeed, it has become larger than life, transcending its traditional forms and functions to create works of art.

Leaf weaving is a common skill in Bali, which most Balinese will be familiar with as part of their contribution to communal and ritual life. The newspaper canang saree offer is an example, with its base woven from edema, the young, hard, yellowish leaves of the palm. Other offerings and decorations are made using this, from the embellishment of the penjor circular bamboo canes tamiang offerings hanging over shrines. THE sneaky, the older palm leaves, soft, broad and green in color, are woven into large sheets called lethargy, used as floor mats, walls or screens in the temple. These are required for most important ceremonies and everyone lends a hand in preparing them.

However, a weaver from Mengwi saw more potential in these flexible palm leaves. By getting creative, Ida Bagus Gede Ari Artana (Gus Ari) reinvented the possibilities of leaf (palm leaves) and created an intricate tableau of receipt AND edema he leaves to decorate the entrance to his friend’s wedding. It was a beautiful all-natural mosaic of jade green and honey yellow squares.

When Chloe Quinn, a stage and set designer from the UK, saw the works of Gus Ari, she was amazed. Seeing the creative possibilities of fusing contemporary design and traditional craftsmanship, together they founded Make a Scene Bali, a one-of-a-kind leaf design studio.

What really made the Make a Scene (MAS) creations stand out was that they literally changed the size of the weaving of the leaves. From flat two-dimensional planes, MAS extruded their creations into realistic 3D structures. A new art form was born: large-scale sculptures in the shape of intricate portals, tangled forests, and majestic mythological creatures, all made from woven, swirled, bent, twisted, and handcrafted palm leaves.

The creations started a green movement, and across the island, many Balinese have reverted to all-natural decorations, especially for weddings. But the MAS team continues to push the boundaries of material and technique. Chloe noted that the more innovative one is, the more attention one can attract. Jewellery, wearable art, sculptures for permanent interiors, immersive pieces, scenography… dreamlike creations were made by MAS weavers, all completely new to this type of craftsmanship.

The founder added that Make a Scene believes it can inspire crafts and artists in Bali, noting that much of its decline is as many prefer to take standard jobs that are seen as more financially sound. Though he has observed the impressive skills and fundamental knowledge of the island’s artisans but, unlike Gus Ari, many do not innovate and thus the craftsmanship remains stagnant.

Even for the masterful weavers of MAS, with very famous pieces to their credit, it took a long time to accept that they were truly multidisciplinary artists, such was their humility. Often without realizing that it was their vision and expertise that created value. For example, their series of jewelry carved from dried lontar leaves is made from a common and inexpensive material: clearly it is only their creativity, time and skill that is valued.

The MAS team hopes their creations will inspire others with what is possible in the field and beyond; inspiring others to think outside the box and challenge themselves to create.

In addition to this, Make a Scene has been invited to design display cases in ten John Hardy Jewelers across the United States; essentially putting into view what was originally a humble craft common along most of the elite road fronts of the United States. This showcase of Balinese craftsmanship outside of Indonesia is another watershed moment, sending a signal to local artisans about what is possible. The visionary production designer hopes they can foster a greater understanding of “value” in local craftsmanship.

Demographics are really changing. Younger men are returning to the trades, easing the pressure of an aging generation. And at Make a Scene, the work is split equally between men and women. More and more local companies are starting to offer leaf weaving services, but the demand is also increasing. Weddings, events, venues all see an interest in presenting something uniquely Balinese.

If there’s a market, there will be demand for the job. As for Make a Scene, as a “spearhead” they will continue to lead the way, innovating the space to new heights.

Create a Bali scene

This is part 2 of a three part article on “Keeping the Craft Alive”, please read all three parts Download our free May-June edition here. OR Read Part 1 here.

Edward Speir

Edward Speir

Edward, or Eddy as he prefers to be called, is the managing editor of NOW! Bali and host of NOW! Podcast Bali. He enjoys photography, rural travel and he loves that his work introduces him to people from all walks of life.

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