I recently returned from a trip to Bali, where I had the pleasure of meeting painter Federico Tomasi in his Kuta studio. Colorful and emotionally charged, Tomasi and his paintings are emotive and full of life. His abstracted faces and bodies cover a range of emotions, both in their inspirations and in the reactions they draw out from viewers.
Tomasi has lived all over the world, being born in Sweden, studying in Italy, and then moving to Bali where he now lives and works. While painting there, he was deeply inspired by the island affected by its history in a really unique way. – Ellen C. Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor
Badung Puputan 1906, Dutch government photograph most likely by Dutch war correspondent Jhr. H. M. Van Weede, Wikimedia Commons.
In September of 1906, the Dutch Indies colonizing forces came ashore Bali via Sanur (a beach town nearby Tomasi’s studio). As the soldiers debarked and approached the royal palace, expecting a violent resistance, they were instead met with a horrific scene that ended Balinese independence. A silent procession of people, led by the raja of Badung, partook in what the Balinese call a puputan or mass ritual suicide. Men, women, and even children used long lances or krises to silently and systematically stab one another at the feet of the Dutch soldiers. It is said that while this puputan was occurring, some of the Dutch forces began attacking the Balinese mass, causing some of the women to mockingly throw silver and gold jewelry at the Dutch troops; though other accounts recall that the women were actually paying and rewarding the soldiers for shooting them. Regardless, it is estimated that 1000 Balinese people gave their lives that day, choosing death over subjugation and colonization.
Ellen Caldwell: When I first heard about your paintings from our mutual friend, he described the way in which you made the Balinese puputan against the Dutch the subject of a series of your works. Could you describe what you knew about this mass suicide, what moved you, how it moved you, and how you incorporated it into your drawings or paintings?
Federico Tomasi: Well, it was more of a coincidence, which is something I believe leads my private life as well. I never sit down and think too much about what to do or why to do it before starting a painting—it’s more of an instinct—I get inspired from the process of doing, from my own drawings, from my thoughts and emotions. And then once the work is finished, I normally sit down and contemplate it.
That’s what happened with the puputan story. For three months, I was already painting those subjects on silver and gold paper over and over again until I reached around a 100 and I remember one day hanging them up, one beside another in my studio, and suddenly I felt something spiritual about it, in feeling and in the way that all of the subjects were all looking upwards. I knew something about puputan so I went asking for more information, and when I discovered that the Balinese had thrown jewelry and coins against the Dutch troops, I immediately connected the gold and silver paper in my works to this story and subject.
EC: I find this subject to be highly potent and really moving. I read that you planned to cremate the show after having it – has that gone as planned, and could you describe it a bit?
FT: I also found it very powerful, especially the Balinese strong, proud act of not letting themselves become slaves and their willingness to give up their lives for that… There are actually two reasons why I want to cremate my work during the show: one is because I don’t feel it would be nice to speculate on such an act. The Hindus cremate bodies after death, so everything started to make sense in that way. The second reason is because two years ago during the exhibition I had in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I felt something was wrong: I felt unhappy even if it was a successful show, and I couldn’t understand why and what was wrong with me. I analyzed my feelings to understand better and I came to the conclusion that something ended with that show, as it would with a relationship or with a friendship. As there was no more dialogue, the paintings were done and I could not touch them anymore, so I finally understood that what really counts for me is the moment I paint—not before or after, it’s during the process that I’m in touch with that thin line made of emotions, feelings, and thoughts.
I think once the painting is finished and I put down the brush, everything disappears from me as if something is ending. This does not mean I will burn all my paintings for the rest of my life but it made me think of the essence of why I’m an artist and what really counts for me being an artist. Anyway, the anniversary of this event is September and of course I will do it here in Bali and not overseas. There are two galleries that represent me here in Indonesia so I’m waiting for confirmations since the whole event will be documented and I really need a team to help me.
EC: I love that concept of the “thin line of emotions” that develops while you are painting. It is really great imagery… You are a true international artist in that you were born in Sweden, schooled in Italy, and currently live in Bali…. How have your Balinese viewers reacted to your art?
FT: I think the reactions could be the same as anyone else’s in the world. I don’t think contemporary art has a country or a specific language or style; I think each person has an individual way to see things in general and it is the same when someone is contemplating my art. And I really like that; it’s why I never put titles on my single work because I want people to see what they want according to their lives and experiences. I really believe in individualism, my dream is to see a future society that treats people as individuals because each of us is different….
Regarding the puputan painting series, the gesture of representing and cremating such a huge amount of work could only be appreciated by the Balinese and it’s a kind of tribute and a gesture of love I have towards this island and the people that live here. Of course the painting in itself will not be important anymore but the main importance is the cremation of it, as a sacrifice or honor.
EC: How have your current paintings and themes grown out of these original puputan-inspired works? Where do you transgress and where do you mimic or repeat?
FT: I’ve been painting people for the last fifteen years and it’s still my main subject. As I said before, nothing is or was really planned in relation to the puputan story. I work horizontally, like Pollock did, and that gives me the chance to add big amounts of colors. I have a sort of control until a point but then I like to let it go by itself – adding lots of colors, and then I normally repeat my work, especially in smaller sizes. Because of the fast process with these smaller pieces, I like to squeeze out every angle of my inspiration. I just simply feel compelled to do it and I am kind of afraid to lose that thin feeling in that precise moment, so I repeat something until it does not have any meaning to me anymore…
EC: Your emphasis on repetitions of faces and facial expressions are really enticing. But every so often, they are almost halted with larger paintings of fragmented bodies. Could you discuss this a bit?
FT: More than halted, I believe my paintings are moving constantly because of the technique I use—the body fragments are a vehicle to be able to express more. You can read people’s emotions from so many elements that belong to them—in the infinity of expressions and body language, there is always a sort of tension I look for in what I’m doing.
EC: Your technique of incorporating heavy-handed masses of paint and high gloss is fabulous and really rich in color and dimension. What kind of paints do you use — and do you vary mediums or stick to a tried and true?
FT: In my earlier works, I used to paint with oils but it started to disturb me because of the long process of drying—too slow compared to the speed of my thoughts, so it felt as if I kind of lost the initial reasons why I was there. So I started to use acrylics and enamels because they where drying faster, and also because of the chemical reaction I discovered, which is part of the “non control” I was mentioning before. This does not mean I will stick to that forever and I might go back to oils if I feel like, or I might try something new. Who knows – an artist should never compromise his art to satisfy the audience.
Portrait of artist Federico Tomasi, 2012. Photograph by Giovanni Lovisetto.
Born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1974, Federico Tomasi followed in his father’s footsteps and enrolled in the Institute of Arts in Riccione, Italy. He began showing his work in 1997 after moving to Asia, and has shown internationally in Italy, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the U.S.
For more information on the Balinese puputan, read Dutch war correspondent Jhr. H. M. Van Weede’s account of the event, published in “The Balinese Puputan” in The Indonesia Reader: History, Culture, Politics, edited by Tienke Hellwig and Eric Tagliacozzo, 2009; and The History of Modern Indonesia Since c.1200 by M.C. Ricklefs, 2008.
Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer. She gives her special thanks to Giovanni Lovisetto for both the introduction to Tomasi and the beautiful portraits.