BALI – Welcome to Paradise at Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden

#Bali. We’ve all seen the plethora of Instagram photos taken in the Indonesian island of Bali. These photos show an exotic, blissful paradise – palm trees, turquoise sea, monkeys.

The ‘instagrammable’ nature of Bali as a travel destination harks back to the image promoted of the island by the Dutch government during the colonial period. The Museum Volkenkunde’s latest exhibition BALI – Welcome to Paradise shows the implications of this popular image of Bali, by showing the complex reality behind the social media images. Not everything is as it seems.

Walking through the doors to the exhibition, you are immediately confronted with the image of Bali that we are all familiar with. A visitor lies on a sun bed, while the other takes their photo. A backdrop of images behind the pair of sun beds show scenes such as a woman practicing yoga on the beach. It appears as though you’ve arrived in Bali for the price of a museum entrance fee.

The layout of the exhibition and the inclusion of new media in the exhibits allow you to feel as though you are actually experiencing a holiday in Bali – the kind seen in travel vlogs and Snapchat stories. As you walk through a narrow corridor beneath twinkling lights and hanging butterflies, you arrive in a space reminiscent of a Balinese market place. Leather sandals and colourful cloths are laid out – albeit, neatly on the museum wall – for you to inspect. Sounds from various videos around the exhibition create a cacophony of music and chatter wherever you go. Outside the exhibition’s doors, I met the Balinese masseuse Jessica Janssen-Matitaputtij who manned a stall on the second floor as part of the ‘Bali weekend’ (17th – 18th November). We discussed the warming effects of ginger oil – welcome in the cold weather – and a smiling girl picked up her violin to play between the stalls.

It may seem as though the familiar image of Bali is being reinforced to you. But this is not the case. An exhibit room allows you to trace the development of this image during the colonial period. Another displays objects that portray certain images associated with Bali, such as the lush green paddy field, in historic Indonesian objects from the museum’s collection. In paying attention to the words written in each label, and to the words spoken by locals in videos distributed around the exhibition, Bali’s changing reality is revealed. An increase in  population and tourism numbers since the beginning of the twentieth century have resulted in environmental issues such as plastic pollution. A video shows how Balinese youth created a whale out of bottles on the beach, and an exhibit room displays works in which contemporary visual artists have responded to this problem. One such work is Made Bayak’s The secret Sanghyang dance for Ibu Pertiwi (2017), in which plastic bag and ice cream wrappers are visible through the paint.

This exhibition shows the contradiction at Bali’s core. As one local explained in a video, the aim is not to discourage tourists from visiting Bali. After all, Bali relies heavily on tourism income. Rather, the aim is to find ways to work together. Rather than communicating a single image of Bali – or declaring that paradise is lost – this exhibition allows the visitor to see the island from multiple perspectives.     Antonia Dalivalle    17th November 2018


BALI – Welcome to Paradise continues until 26th May 2019