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By J-Philippe

11 March 2009

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Jakarta Post, March 11, 2009.

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.”

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