In March 2021 the Australian Museum received a generous gift of nearly 300 Balinese and some Javanese textiles, masks, paintings and wood carvings from Michael Abbott.
Michael Abbott, AO QC, an accomplished South Australian lawyer, dedicated his life to studying the culture of communities in our region of Southeast Asia, India, and China. He was awarded the Order of Australia for ‘distinguished service to the visual arts, particularly through leadership roles, to the development of arts education, to Australia-Asia relations, and to the law.’
Indonesia, and Bali in particular, proved to be a good entry point, with its own richness of cultural traditions that dazzles even a casual observer. But Mr Abbott, fluent in Bahasa (an Indonesian language), made his learning more personal and centred on people and relationships which resulted in friendships and fine insights into traditions and practices that are difficult to comprehend in the conceptual framework of English language and western culture.
Mr Abbott developed special interest in Asian textiles which, in their richness and varieties, encodes a large body of etiquette, identity and meaning virtually unparalleled in the Western cultural tradition.
For over ten years he was Chairman of the Board of the Art Gallery of South Australia and was active in cultural circles in Australia and abroad. Mr Abbott has also donated over a thousand works of Asian art to various institutions in Australia. He incessantly and extensively travelled throughout Asia, and Southeast Asia, discovering art, connecting with people, and often providing legal assistance.
In Southeast Asia, the layers of cultural traditions often revolve around interconnecting as it is the home of the largest and probably oldest maritime civilisation linking over 20,000 islands. A tangible result is the spectacular spread of Australasian languages from South China Sea to the northern doorsteps of Australia and from Madagascar in the west to and across the South Pacific to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the east. Equally spectacular is the spread of outrigger canoes – an original Southeast Asian invention and the effective ‘vehicle’ of this relentless geographical endeavour.
Located on the ‘cross-roads’ of large ancient civilisations, especially India and China, and their long-established trading routes, Indonesia and Bali absorbed and creatively developed numerous elements of these cultures, enriching local ancient traditions. The echoes of some historical events are embedded in local mythology. Political instability in the 15th century prompted Javanese adherents of the Hindu/Buddhist faith moved to the eastern parts of Java and eventually to Bali. According to a legend, Nirartha, the hugely influential, humble, and revered priest sailed from Java to Bali on a pumpkin during this relocation, and for this reason the Brahmins – members of a priestly cast - should not eat pumpkin as it is considered taboo.
The population of Java and other Indonesian islands was shifting to Islam while the Dutch colonisation was expanding and tightening its grip on the region. The popular story of Prince Raden Mursada who brought Islam to Java traveling on a big fish, encapsulates this cultural shift. As a result, the old canter of pre-Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu tradition in Java, moved to a little island of Bali where, it remains as an iconic embodiment of over a thousand year old culture.
Despite several centuries of colonising enterprise, only in the early 20th century did the Dutch dominance extend to what was to become Indonesia, in approximately its current boundaries. Until the first decade of the 20th century Bali was, in parts, still ruled by local kings. The Dutch invasion of the last independent Balinese kingdom, Klungkung, in 1909 is depicted in Kamasan painting by Mangku Muriati. Colonial rule effectively finished in 1945 with the end of the Second World War.
But from the 1920s Western artists (eg. Rudolf Bonnet, Walter Spies, Theo Mayer) and scholars (eg. Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson) visited Bali and some settled there. From the 1970s onwards visiting Bali and cultural tourism was encouraged and promoted by the Indonesian Government and local authorities. Visiting temples, attending some ceremonies, and performances staged specifically for the visitors provided numerous opportunities for foreigners to immerse in Balinese culture. Tourist money and interest stimulated, at least in part, refurbishment of Bali temples and shrines, commissioning new paintings and carvings to refresh ceremonial decorum. Many art and craft objects, some of a high quality, were produced for this increasingly profitable market.
With a refined insight and understanding, Mr Abbott collected older pieces, some that originated in the 19th century, de-commissioned paintings and figures, ceremonial accessories, masks and textiles that were unused for many decades. Among them is a temple offering box with a statue of Dewi Sri, Goddess of rice and fertility, on the cosmic turtle Bedawang Nala, who carries the world on her back; two palm leaf manuscripts (lontar) composed in Balinese script; several paintings on wooden panels, depicting iconic episodes from Hindu mythology; two sets of very old intricately carved doors from Nusa Penida, a small island south of Bali that belong to the Klungkung Regency. Collectively they provide a good selection of stylistic examples of this earlier period and elevate the Museum’s Balinese collection to about 1,200 items.
Our world class collection of 200 Balinese Kamasan paintings, mostly from the middle decades of the 20th century, includes a rare early 19th century painting on bark-cloth, and several other paintings from that period, an uncommon painting with gold leaf, some paintings by accomplished artists such as Rambug, Pan Seken, Kak Lui, Nyoman Dogol, Mngku Mura, and Nyoman Mandra. There is a good selection of paintings by women artists, including one of the acknowledged pioneer female artists Made Sucirami. Some of these paintings were commissioned a decade ago and illustrate not only that women contribute to this ancient tradition but also bold experimentation and new aesthetic currents as represented by Mangku Muriati and Wayan Wally.
This treasured set is complemented by 100 of the pre-war modernist paintings on paper. The collection is well documented, researched, and accessible to our audience, including digital access via the Museum website. A few old paintings from Mr Abbott handsomely enrich this valuable set and other donated items provide a rich cultural context as the numerous iconic characters, deities, humans, animals, and mythical beings span all aspects of ceremonial practices in narrative, dance, music, theatre, and life cycle rituals. This donation helps the Museum stand among the major contributors to the international effort of preserving, documenting and promoting the alluring Balinese cultural heritage.
We believe the Museum’s gratitude and appreciation of Mr Abbott’s donation will be met by our visitors, communities, students, artists, and scholars who will benefit from this wonderful and highly treasured collection. A big thank you Michael Abbott.