Ric Spencer and Chris Hill. Picture: Robert Duncan/The West Australian

It's a sad but true fact that much of what we hear about Australians in Bali relates to the drunken shenanigans of schoolies and yobbos in Kuta, the tourist precinct that many first-timers to the island make a beeline for.

But talk to Chris Hill, who has one of the biggest private collections of Balinese art in WA, and you quickly realise what a misconception it is to equate Bali only with Kuta or to assume that all Australian visitors are misbehaving louts.

Hill is the co-curator of BALI: return economy, an exhibition at Fremantle Arts Centre that aims to dig deeper into the relationship between the Balinese and West Australians in particular.

Looking beyond the tourist cliches and the not-so-positive newspaper headlines, this mixed-media show explores the idea of cultural and artistic exchange between these two close neighbours, investigating the connections between the places and their people.

"Part of the object of the show is to get more people interested in Balinese art and culture," says Hill, who has been travelling to Bali since the late 1970s.

"Some of what's in the exhibition will surprise people because they may not have been exposed to this side of Bali culture on their holidays. We wanted this slightly deeper engagement with Bali and we hope it encourages people to seek out things that they haven't been led to on previous visits - beyond the tourist traps and the places the hotel guides take you to. There are some wonderful things in Bali if you take the time to look."

Several items from Hill's private collection feature in the exhibition, held as part of the Perth International Arts Festival.

These include traditional wayang paintings based on the wayang kulit shadow puppet shows popular throughout Indonesia. These classical works sit alongside contemporary video art, photography, cutting-edge paintings and political cartoons, presenting a fascinating mix of old and new, East and West.

Balinese artists on show include Jango Pramartha, Wayan Upadana, Pranoto and Teja Astawa, while local artists on show include Kerry Pendergrast, Toni Wilkinson, Paul Trinidad and, of course, Rodney Glick, who set up Seniman Industries with his partner David Sullivan and now lives in Bali full-time.

"Until going on research trips with the show's co-curator, Ric Spencer, I wasn't very familiar with the younger, more avant-garde artists in Bali," Hill admits.

"I was more drawn to the traditional artists whose work I had been buying. Looking at the contemporary artists has been quite an eye-opener for me. The art scene is very vibrant and there are a lot of very committed young and mid-career artists who are quite experimental, but who also have great respect for their forebears and the artistic heritage they are a part of."

The WA artists explore the sometimes vexed and tender political and cultural relationship between Australia and Indonesia, which has been in the headlines again in recent months over spying allegations and the ongoing refugee debate. But rather than focusing on divisions, Hill says the exhibition focuses more on the ways in which Australians and the Balinese work in unison - collaborating on art projects, supporting one another's work, or taking seemingly disposable bits of each other's cultures and turning them into artistic works of surprising beauty.

"Lucinda Crimson, for example, went to Bali and stocked up on box-loads of cheap, commercial items from local markets and supermarkets," Hill explains. "She's doing a large installation in the main gallery in which she rearranges these items - things like packets of coathangers - into a quite startling, visually arresting work."

Hill has known Rodney Glick, whose popular coffee shop in Ubud is the go-to place for discerning travellers wanting to avoid the chaos of Kuta, for some time. Glick, it transpires, is almost as passionate about coffee as he is about art, a fact made clear by his contribution to BALI: return economy.

"We're creating a 'reading room' in the gallery that has much of the same atmosphere of Glick's Ubud coffee shop - minus the coffee," Hill laughs. However, visitors will be able to sit at a table and peruse a coffee-themed book that Glick has produced: a coffee-table book about coffee, if you will.

It was Hill who helped Glick find the Balinese wood-carvers he now collaborates with on much of his sculpture work. After a first family visit in the late 1970s, Hill and his wife bought a villa overlooking the Ubud River in the late 1980s.

Soon after, he started up a small business exporting handicrafts back to Fremantle, where he co-owned a shop called Rebecca Design. He then began to explore Bali's fine arts scene, and after completing a degree in the history of Balinese painting at Murdoch University, began collecting Balinese art. He continues to visit regularly, speaking at art conferences, and his Fremantle home is full of Balinese art and objects, which sit - rather incongruously, as even he admits - with works expressive of his other artistic love (minimal, abstract Western art).

"In putting this exhibition together we were thinking of it as a point of departure," he says. "It's not intended as a comprehensive survey of every up-and-coming Balinese artist. It's a more personal collection, one that reflects that contacts that we've made on our many journeys to Bali."

The West Australian

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