Buying a Tari Telek Mask at Sukawati Art Market [Bali Trip Rambles #1]
In the Art Market of Sukawati, it took me a good hour to make the most expensive souvenir purchase in my entire twenty-three years of living. I was already looking to fork out a hefty sum even before I walked into the humble-looking building that was filled to the brim with colourful stalls that had almost everything Balinese on display– from rolls of gorgeous Batik to nifty wooden keychains. The reason why I felt so particularly generous was because I had just graduated! Soon, I will be getting my very own paycheck which will (hopefully) lead to riches and what better way to spend it than on an eye-catching memento of my only graduation trip?
I didn’t know what exactly I wanted, but I knew that once I saw it, I would feel it in my guts. And I definitely felt it when I saw the mask.
Fear, that was.
I thought at first that the mask must be a mimic of some villainous spirit, because it was bewitching with its pure white skin, large eyes and devilish grin. Its gaze followed me as I walked past the stall and its spell was only broken when its artist– an energetic and sweet old man that reminded me of Pinocchio’s Geppetto– beckoned me to take a closer look.
With all the ignorance that an Indonesian diaspora could muster, I asked him if she was some sort of witch. He looked at me, shocked at first, then shook his head vehemently before laughing. It turns out that it was the mask of a Tari Telek dancer!
Tari Telek is one of the Balinese cultural dances that cleverly weaves masks into their performances. The dance is traditionally performed to ward off impending natural catastrophes, such as tsunamis and earthquakes, and this type of mask in particular is donned by beautiful ladies to show off the elegant features of unblemished skin, expressive eyes, and youthful lips. Nowadays, Tari Telek is often showcased at touristy areas to demonstrate the beauty of Bali’s cultures!
Upon learning more about the mask, I was compelled to buy the mask, especially after the artist showed me the hard work and dedication he dished out on a daily basis. Every morning, he would forage for the perfect barks of wood, carve new life into them, and doll them up with paint and ornaments. This process takes hours, and he didn’t just do masks, he made puppets, figurines and decor! Then he’d have to travel all the way to the Sukawati Art Market to sell his masks. He showed me a photo of himself in the workshop and I was astounded to see him surrounded by wood shavings and intricate pieces of unpainted masks, some of them I recognised to be that of a Barong.
Of course, his talent wasn’t left unrecognised. He also told me that while he still had much supply left, he gets customers in the form of Balinese dancers, who need to don his masks for their performances, and foreigners who would deliberately travel down from their far-away countries, such as Portugal, to purchase a couple of his masks at a time. And the costs of the masks were (to me) an incredible steal! The mask I bought was around 900k rupiah (~60 USD), which was great because that was all I had for souvenirs, being the broke university graduate that I was and still am. He even threw in a few complimentary glass bracelets for my friends and I to wear!
Buying his art ignited an interest in masks and I brought my group over to the Setia Darma House of Mask and Puppets where I learned more about masks [We will be writing an article on Indonesian masks in the future so do look forward to it! Will link it here once it is published]. I showed our guide a photo of the mask I bought and she declared that it was a fine piece of craftsmanship though we could only wait to tell its true value, as it depends on the extent of quality it retains through the passage of time. Masks of bad craftsmanship will easily become pockmarked in a matter of months, especially if the wood used is bad.
Unsurprisingly, when I brought it home, the Tari Telek mask incurred looks of unease from my parents when they first saw it, and my mum advised me to keep the mask under wraps at night so that I wouldn’t suddenly wake up to a ghostly figure by my bed. This fear might have stemmed a little from aniconism in Islam, which refers to the avoidance of images of sentient beings, or it could be that the beauty that the mask held did not align to our own social standards, considering how I primarily found it creepy.
Their worries were definitely concerning, so for a week, I had the tradition of saying goodnight to the mask, hiding it in between my towels, and then hanging it back up on my wall in the morning. Then after a particularly horrid day, I decided to heed the cultural significance of the mask and wear it. If the dance can ward off natural catastrophes, then wearing the mask should give me some good luck too.
I’m still not sure if wearing the mask managed to assuage nature but breathing in the warm, gentle scent of whichever wood the creator picked was certainly calming. From then on, I would wear it in my room whenever I needed a boost of courage or if I needed to soothe my nerves. My practices shifted from fearing the mask to indulging in it, as they should! I hope that I will amass more spending money the next time I visit Sukawati so that I can buy more of the artist’s works 😊
Unfortunately, we didn’t get the artist’s name, aside from his honorifics. But he is the only mask-seller in the Sukawati Art Market building and should be on the 2nd floor. For anyone interested in contacting him, we do have his contact number written down so you can DM us!
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