J-PHILIPPE: Melting barriers with art and soul
Rita A. Widiadana, The Jakarta Post, Denpasar,March 11, 2009.
Bali-based French artist J-PHILIPPE prays each day for a grateful life.
Born in Orléans 40 years ago to an artisan father and a graduate of the prestigious art school L’Ecole Boule in Paris, J-PHILIPPE could have pursued a flourishing career in France, a heaven for artists.Instead, he followed his “His calling”: Attracted to the spirituality of the Benedictine congregation, he joined the monastery of Saint Benoît sur Loire.
In 1991, he landed in the small town of Gianyar in Bali as a volunteer to teach art at Sasana Hasta Karya vocational school, developed by the Catholic Church of Bali, thousands of kilometers from his hometown. “As human beings, we don’t have any freedom to choose or to design our lives,” Haure says. “Our task is just to struggle to fully accept the kind of life which has been given to us.”
When he first arrived in Bali, he was, he admits honestly, quite confused. “I just followed it and enjoyed every minute of the day.”
Living in a modest house equipped with a barn-cum-studio in the green and shady artist village of Kububingin near Ubud, he is almost isolated from the hustle and bustle of the island’s glittering art circle and glamorous tourism industry.
“I lead a very ordinary life: taking children to school, teaching and nurturing my artistic works,” he says. “Nothing is so special. Yet it can be special depending on how people see and feel it.”
After teaching at the school, he spends hours working in his studio built on the slope of a small river.
“My artworks reflect my own life,” J-PHILIPPE says. “It goes between abstract and realism, spirituality and materialism. I really don’t know how to clearly define it.”
For many critics, J-PHILIPPE’s art pieces are different from the works of other Western artists who explored Bali as their subject. Take for example his portrayal of Balinese women, as commented upon by the respected art critic Jean Couteau, who wrote an insightful review of his work.
“What characterizes J-PHILIPPE’s attitude in his treatment, in his works, of the social issue of Balinese womanhood, is his total absence of prejudices – colonial as well as post-colonial,” Couteau wrote. “He seems to tell us that Balinese women may be beautiful, but this should not entitle Westerners to ‘see’ and treat them as sexual objects in the name of an ‘exotic’ difference enshrined in colonial history.”
Couteau also found J-PHILIPPE’s attitude to art to be far from any normative cultural stereotyping; it is, he wrote, “an attitude much healthier than his [Western artists] predecessors.”
J-PHILIPPE could easily fall into the trap of delivering a stereotypical portrayal of the island as depicted by many Western artists in the past. He refuses to allow that, even as a band of foreign artists seek fame and fortune by exploiting “Balinese exoticism”, although, J-PHILIPPE says, “There were often misperceptions and misunderstandings about the term exoticism.”
When people visit a faraway place occupied by “strange” people with an alien culture and traditions, they tend to see it as exotic, he says, which is a kind of shallowness in the understanding and appreciation of other people’s culture and traditions: “In my opinion, they [groups of first-time Western artists in Bali] try to strongly express the island’s exoticism in terms of its uniqueness and differences without trying to really understand them.”
J-PHILIPPE believes that once people understand and accept the differences and diversities, there will be no more “exoticism” in any social and cultural contextual forms.
But understanding a different culture requires time and effort, J-PHILIPPE says.
“When I first arrived in Bali, I found it very difficult to adjust to a new living environment. I remembered how I should learn to taste local food, to feel the hot and humid weather, to understand the way the local people thought and behaved and even the way they walk and sit. Everything seemed so hard to me.”
Spiritually, it was even more complex. “The way I looked at the concept of my selfness was different from the people around me,” he adds. As devout Catholic and a European, J-PHILIPPE found it particularly hard to adapt to life on the predominantly Hindu island.
“It required hard work and it took me quite some time to try to build a strong bridge to secure a way of physical and spiritual communication,” he says.
During his first years in Bali, he stayed with the Balinese noble family of Puri Abianbase in Gianyar, where he learned traditional Balinese music, Ble Ganjur, and the arts. More importantly, he built direct interaction with the locals by socializing intensely with them.
In that way, J-PHILIPPE experienced a gradual and natural cross-cultural transformation as he began to learn, embrace and respect the values of his adopted land’s culture, tradition and beliefs.
“The Balinese society has taught me something very valuable – the communality, a sense of togetherness.” In such a society, he points out, no personal ego is allowed to stand out.
“As a child and a man educated in the rational and individual Western culture, the communal concept was hardly recognized....”
His newly acquired knowledge and respect of the local people and culture had the effect of melting away communication barriers. He began to see the Balinese and Indonesians as his fellow humans whose values and thoughts must be understood and respected rather than as “alien people and attractive art objects”.
All of these beliefs and experiences are clearly manifested in his work and his simple and religious life.
He now shares his values with his family and his students, who come from different parts of Indonesia.
“I feel so motivated to introduce my children and students to the virtues of learning and respecting the diversity and differences that often separate people from one and another,” he says.
“It is the real and difficult lesson that everyone should master in order to succeed in life.”