Diany Asmina Sinung has her own art gallery. Situated in Bali's Sanur resort region, the gallery goes under the name 'Diany Fine Paintings.' Here she works at her painting, an easel set up in the gallery, her paints and palette knife at hand. In her gallery she hangs several of her own works as well as the works of other Balinese women artists.
Most of the subjects Diany draws upon are women. The way she talks it is obvious she is what we in the west would term a feminist, though she doesn't use the word itself to define her work or her beliefs. When I listened to her story I realised that Diany's life experiences have made her a feminist as much as they also made her a painter.
Today, at age 35, Diany Sinung is a very successful artist. Born into poor circumstances in Blitar, Java in 1959, as a small child Diany was adopted by her grand-parents and taken hundreds of kilometres away from her parents to the other side of the country. She rarely saw her family after that and was brought up instead by strict, uncaring relatives who were very hard on her, restricting her freedom and denying her the one thing she wanted to do, and that was to paint.
Her high school teacher saw that Diany had real talent at painting and tried to encourage her, but her family would not hear of it. 'Girls should not paint', they told her angrily, 'painting cannot help you in life.'
The art critic, Agus Dermawan T., explains that 'in Indonesia community attitudes are such that it is not considered important for a woman to be a painter. Woman is merely a part of one's household.' In reviewing Diany Sinung's works he pays tribute to all that Diany had to overcome in order to succeed as an artist in Indonesia. He writes: 'bound by tradition, restricted by her family and her environment, and limited by the fact that she was born a woman, under such circumstances it seemed beyond Diany's power to ever become a painter. But through her own endeavours she eventually attained her goal.'
To escape from her difficult home situation, at 18 Diany married someone she did not love and who was not good to her. They had two sons, and after divorcing him, not an easy action for an Indonesian woman to take, in 1985 Diany took her sons and moved to Bali, arriving with very little money, but a firm determination to paint.
In those days Diany had to paint in order to earn a living, so she painted the kind of work the tourists seemed to like. 'Now I paint what I want,' she laughs. Everything she has learnt about her art she has taught herself. 'I have never been to art school. I taught myself.' She learnt from studying art books and observing other artists, both foreign and local.
In 1990 Diany and a few friends helped form Ikatan Seniwati di Bali, the Association of Balinese Women Artists. As a group they meet regularly at the Seniwati Women's Art Gallery in Ubud. 'Being part of Ikatan and meeting other women artists has helped me a lot.' The group plan exhibitions and share ideas and experiences.
Most of Diany's paintings reflect the subject closest to her heart - that of woman, of women's lives, their work, their daily experiences. She is often asked why she prefers mostly to paint women, and she explains that 'I haven't the same interest in what men do as I have in what women do. If I paint a woman I see what is a woman's life, how she feels, what is her character. I much prefer to paint women and I also like painting children.'
A beautiful painting of Diany's shows women resting after a day of heavy work. As she says, 'life here is so hard for women, always working, always trying to find money to live. Life here is much easier for men. The family treats the son like a king, they give him all the opportunities denied to a girl.'
Most of Diany's paintings are scenes of women selling their goods in the markets, or groups of women sitting beneath a tree selling in the streets, or of women praying together at the temple, making temple offerings, or simply young girls washing at the river. Interestingly, most of her paintings are of groups of women, never of a single woman. When asked why she explained that 'this is my culture, women mostly do things in groups, communally. I like to paint women doing things together.'
When Diany the artist sits down at her easel to begin a new painting, she thinks first of a scene, perhaps something in the village or the market or the street that she would like to paint. She then takes a photo of that scene, and then she needs time to think about it, to plan it. 'I need time to accept the idea in my head and in my heart. I need to feel it.' Although her painting technique is not that of the traditional Balinese artistic style, rather it is more modern having come under some western influence, yet her themes remain traditional, temple ceremonies, festivals, the village, the market place, the rice paddies.
And always with women as the core, the foundation, the centrepiece. Her choice of colours are the colours of the earth, black, yellows, browns. Perhaps this is deliberate, Diany's way of saying that the women of Bali, of her culture, are the salt of the earth. She paints them in earthy tonings, and these black, brown, yellow forms seem more vivid than any bright hued colours. Their silhouetted contours loudly speak the daily lives they lead. Diany's brush strokes paint Bali womanhood, in all her pathos and in all her beauty.
These days Diany holds exhibitions across the country, selling very well in Surabaya, Jakarta and all over Bali. Some of her paintings sell for 12 million rupiahs (about AU$6000) each. Mrs. Suharto bought two of her paintings, and her daughter has bought three of them.
How do her family think of her now? 'I often go back to Java and visit my grandparents. I help them and give them money. Things are better between us now, simply because they are older and they no longer have any power over me.'
Diany claims that she gained her real independence when she obtained her divorce. She now firmly believes that 'if a woman really tries hard to find something that she wants, she will find a way.' Diany's way has been through her painting. She regards the world of painting as her 'ventilation to life.' She puts it so well when she says 'in painting I found my own medium of expression. It is through my painting that I can feel as free as the wind, I can exercise my fantasies, I can laugh, I can chat, I can cry'....
Gloria Frydman is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne.