Tjokot – Bali Wood Carving Maestro

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“His creations are quite exotic to look at, traditional but without academic influence.
His works have a frighteningly macabre feel, his animal carvings eerie, his figurative sculptures showing strange and frightening forms, as well as beasts whose features are indistinct”

Tjokot photo

The detritus logs and roots commonly  found along the river’s edge have a unique artistic potential.

This has been proven by the creative carving of 1 Nyoman Tjokot, born around 1886 in Jati village, Tegallalang, some 15 kilometres from Ubud, Gianyar. Using all his sensual powers he was able to find a story in most any piece of wood, whatever shape or size.  He could carve his fantasy using chisel and mallet, creating characters spontaneously until he finished up with a three-dimensional invention that even he could not have predicted.

Without any kind of formal education or training, Tjokot, son of I Gentar and Ni I (inut, had an amazing grasp of technique, enabling him to take any shape of wood and carve it in such a way as  its proportions were represented perfectly in the finished work, which would always be a fine balance between form and composition.  With each stroke of his mallet, a dialogue took place between himself and his work, deepening the character and expression of the work as it progressed.

Tjokot was not born into a family of artists. Neither of his grandfathers, I Wayan Tambun and I Made Punduh, were sculptors.  His artistic inclination came naturally and spontaneously without parental influence or even encouragement from schoolteachers.  Actually it seems that nobody was responsible for teaching him the amazing skills he possessed, and it is safe to say that he was entirely self-taught.

Something of a hill-billy, Tjokot was down to earth and lived quite modestly.  He was a small  man compared even to most Balinese.  When he was twenty he married a girl from the same village, Ni Gonta, to whom he remained attached until death, and who gave him seven children.  His fifth, I Wayan Ditu is no longer with us, and neither is his second, a daughter, Ni Made Santer.

The other five have made it their lot to continue producing sculpture in the style of their father. Although eccentric in his work, in daily village life Tjokot was an amenable soul.  He was a priest, generally officiating at weddings and birth ceremonies, and he was also a healer.  He spent his leisure time pursuing the traditional pastime  of cock fighting, although Dini rejects accusations that his father was cock-fight-crazy: “When father  was working he would forget everything, often falling asleep besides his work.  It’s therefore wrong  to say he was always cock-fighting.

Tjokot was a notorious workaholic.  This we  know from the writings of GM Sudarta who wrote in 1974.

“I met him some months before he died  in Jati village.  In order to get to the village then, one had to travel 15km from Ubud on foot, over  hills and dales.  He had been ill for some time but was determined to live out his remaining days in  Jati.  In fact it was his last wish to die in his place of birth embraced by his family.  In a wobbly old  bamboo hut with a low concaved roof 1 met him as he was working in a stooped position, his knees  against his chest.”

Right up to his dying moments he continued to  work on small carvings, even though his legs were weak and his eyesight fading.  As old age over  came him, he still managed to wield hammer and chisel.

Tjokot died at 83 years of age on the 1st of  October 1971 as a result of tuberculosis having wrecked his lungs.  He left little in the way of material wealth for his children and grandchildren, except a few prized sculptures which remain in  their possession to this day.  But despite being poor, he left behind quite a big name, not only for his  family, but for Indonesia as a whole. He also passed on a style which became known as Tjokotism and which later enabled his progeny to improve their standard of living by leaps and bounds.

The style developed by Tjokot and introduced earlier in this writing, can be described as primitive, coarse, spontaneous, and full of realism and strong personal expression.  All of his works were achieved with the help of chalk and coconut oil, and although this is done to prevent the wood from warping and splitting, it allowed Tjokot to be freer with ornament and to achieve extremely subtle detail.  This is similar to the makers of Kris daggers, who mix metals in such a way as to achieve its distinctive colour and character.

As ‘primitive’ creations, his works are highly exotic, traditional, and without any kind of academic reference.  His works have a frighteningly macabre feel, his animal carvings eerie, his figurative sculptures showing strange and frightening forms, as well as beasts whose features are indistinct.  This primitive style has become known as ‘Tjokotism’.
Tjokot was not particularly interested in passing his style on to his children.  “Father only encouraged us to make beautiful and interesting carvings, not necessarily in his style. He said this would help us to earn more rapid cash that we would need for public and religious holidays”, said Made Dini, one of Tjokot’s children with whom the author spoke and the owner of an art shop in Teges.

Peliatan boasting the sign “Tjokot’s  Son”.  Dini added:

” However because we often saw our father at work, we inevitably  started to copy his style, even if we each branched off in slightly different directions;  brothers, sisters, grandchildren and all.”

The development of Tjokotism today no  longer happens along spontaneous lines, because of limitations imposed from the outside.  A chair or table’s measurements will these days take account of the space into which they  are to be used, and this places slight constraints on expression.

Tjokotism didn’t come from nowhere, and  it has to be said that Tjokot’s work was
influenced by the Ubud style, which was refined  and sweet.  Since there were so many sculptors concentrated in the Ubud area, Tjokot  watched them and began to imitate their style.

However, as soon as he had mastered technique he quickly developed an idiosyncratic approach that was unprecedented. The primitive aspect of his work concurs  with his habit of meditating at Taro temple some five kilometers from his village where  there are many primitive carvings and stone relief.  On his way to and from the temple he  would come across pieces of wood suitable for his craft and take them home to be worked  on. He also drew much inspiration from lontar leaf manuscripts, which he was also highly  adapt at reading and interpreting in his works. The day when he realized he was an artist  was also the moment he felt that he had finally discovered Bali in his work.

His creative process rarely involved advance planning.  He simply picked up his tools and began to chisel away, his imagination being led   by the form of the particular piece of wood he was working on, controlled at the same time by his   keen aesthetic judgment. Many of his works are now in the permanent  collection of the puri Lukisan Ubud., such as Leak and his Minion, Mother and Child, Grasshopper,   Tigerandher Cubs, owl Mother Canyinga Lantern with her Child, Sita Kidnapped by Rahwana,  Garuda Eating Snake, Begawan on a Devil’s Back and the narrative Bubuk Sah goes to heaven on   the shoulders of a tiger while his brother Gagak Aking grasps the tiger’s tail’ (from the folk tale  Gagak Aking).  And in the Mabudhara Mandhara Giri Bhuwana building of the Arts Centre in  Denpasar can be seen his creation Paksi (bird).
In the thirties the painter Gusti Nyornan   Lernpad would often joke with Tjokot as he walked past Lempad’s house in Ubud carrying his carvings.  “Hey Tjokot.  Where are you taking that firewood?” Tjokot would smile and walk on.  Yet this was not the only instance of mockery. Many people considered him to be a little crazy because of the way his work was at variance with the prevailing artistic clime in Ubud at the time: refined, technically accurate and aesthetically beautiful.

The stubborn Tjokot didn’t think of his creations as firewood of course.  On the contrary, he felt that he was breaking new and important  ground, and the day would come when Leinpad would accept and value, even admire Tjokot’s  steadfastness in his art.

In the thirties there were also two foreign painters in Ubud, Waiter Spies and Rudolf Bonnet, who straight away saw the strength of Tjokot’s work. They were extremely supportive and helped Tjokot to convince the doubting Thomas in the rather  backward villages, that this was a genius at work. The coarse, unrefined, primitive pieces he made  were sold in reasonable numbers, although not in quantities to match sales of works by more orthodox craftsmen.  Tjokot’s works were always stashed in a dark corner, out of sight, sometimes getting   no further than the warehouse.

After Indonesian independence, though,  Tjokot’s vanguard style achieved a new popularity.  Art shops started to stock his works, in particular Nuratni Art Shop which was working in conjunction with “Topic Traders”, who introduced   Tjokot to the outside world.  Collectors from Europe and America rushed to buy his work. In the forties Tjokot had become an acknowledged maestro, and from that time on visitors to Bali would go out of their way to obtain examples   of his work.  Pieces which had been placed out of sight were brought out of hiding and dusted down  ready to be placed in full view for maximal visual enjoyment.  Local collectors exhibited a kind of  snobbery with respect to owning a Tjokot, and went out of their way to show that they had at  least one example in their collections.

So many of his works were sold that when he   finally passed away there were very few remaining, so that when an exhibition was held in Jakarta   at the Museum of Fine Art as part of the 450th anniversary of the city, only eight pieces were   brought together, to be shown alongside the work of Gusti Nyoman Lempad and Ida Bagus Nyana.  They were : Gajah Mina (1966), Sato Ngempu (1968) and  Panca Resi (1968), with the remainder of the exhibition provided by Tjokotists (his children) Sawat, Lantas, Nongos, Dim, and two grandchildren I Made Kanten and 1 Made Gelis.
Several exhibitions brought heaps of praise on   Tjokot.  In the above mentioned exhibition, the organiser, Kusnadi, wrote:

“The late I Nyoman   Tjokot found a magical expressiveness that was basically ancient Balinese in essence, an aesthetic   that was introduced and maintained in his works without any conscious thought of preserving culture, a culture whose art often features portrayals of magical beasts and devils.”

Prior to this an exhibition of his work along  with that of mask maker Ida Bagus Geledog, was held at the Queensland Industries Fair in Australia, at which time Nongos acted as deputy, running a workshop to introduce Tjokotism to the out side world.  Then there was the 1970 Expo in Kyoto, Japan, where Tjokot’s work added zest to Indonesia’s stand, and his work was also included in a tour of America in 1993.

In 1969 he was awarded the Wijaya Kusuma   prize by the Indonesian government which included the sum of Rp 100,000 – at that time the   biggest award ever made to an artist in Indonesia. A fine achievement after so many years of poverty and suffering for his art, When he received the award on the 17th of August 1969, the following announcement was made:
“This award is being presented to I Nyoman Tjokot as a mark of respect from the Indonesian Department of Education and Culture, in recognition  of work done in the name of Indonesia by this sculptor who has maintained his integrity amidst the rapid developments taking place in the  Balinese arts.

According to his son 1 Made Dim, half of the  money was spent renovating the house in Jati, and the other half building an art shop in Kesiman.  Tjokot didn’t only receive praise at home.  In the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday May 8, 1979, Tom Bolster wrote:

“’Today Bali’s two to three million people are  undergoing a new period of development.  It is a new colony, a colony of western tourists.  We see  it in the traffic on the highway.  Pressure, attitude, and a whole way of thinking has arrived all of a  sudden.  And yet as long as the mythical winged lion stands guard at the gates of the besieged, Balinese art and culture will never be drowned in a sea of western thinking and lifestyle.  The product  of Tjokot’s life work strengthened and pointed to wards the steadfastness and vitality that is such an integral part of Balinese culture.”

From this we can see Tjokot as the lion at the gates, especially for forthcoming generations whose task is to keep alive the creativity of Tjokot whilst faced with an era of globalization.

Tjokot Masterpiece

Tjokot and his family never been listed any masterpiece that Tjokot made before he die. But some museum in Bali, Indonesia and outside Indonesia, has been collect many of them at their collections. The characteristic Tjokot’s masterpiece is usually small, not any bigger than 1 meters height, making from very dry wood, usually from “pinis” wood, “panggal buaya” wood, “gintungan” or red wood.

Here are few that his family believes to be his genuine masterpieces:

Tjokot - flying mantis

Title: Flying Mantis
Wood: Unknown
Year: 1948
Collection: Leiden Museum, Holland

Tjokot - dog fight

Title: Dog fight
Wood: Probably “gintungan”
Year: 1964
Collection: Leiden Museum, Holland

tjokot - buta siu

Title: Buta Siu (Thousand Face)
Wood: Probably “gintungan”
Year: 1964
Collection: Leiden Museum, Holland

Actually this museum still has another 21 of his masterpiece. But most of them still in doubt by Tjokot’s family and some also they believe to be the fake ones.

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