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Balinese statue: ‘Child birth’

Wooden statues have been made on Bali for centuries. For a long period of time, up to about 1920, these statues were made exclusively for the temples or for use in certain rituals. They usually depict figures from the Hindu sagas, such as the well-known Ramayana story.
Around the 1920s there was a shift noticeable as Balinese woodcarvers became influenced by foreign artists who visited Bali. The woodcarvers started to make carvings depicting images of every day life. These foreign artists, like Bonnet and Spies, noticed the creative potential of the Balinese woodcarvers and encouraged them to experiment with other subjects than religious ones.  This applied not only to woodcarving but also to painting. Consequently, carvings such as a sitting old man with his sirih-bag under his arm, a legong dancer in a dancing pose, or simply a proud Balinese man with his fighting cock, saw the daylight.
Few tourists visited Bali during 1910 and 1920 and thus there was no souvenir-industry. Therefore the Balinese carvers were only motivated by their creative ideals and not by commercial motives. Consequently many important carvings were made during the pre-war period, roughly between 1915 and 1940. The period 1928-1940 is also known as the ‘art deco’ period, because the woodcarvers were influenced by the art deco from Europe. As the woodcarvers produced carvings for the temple, they never signed their work. This changed after the war.
Carved wooden sculpture, ‘Child-birth’. Bali, 1915-1925. H. 15,5 cm.
Provenance: owned by the artist Wijnand Otto Jan Nieuwenkamp (1874-1950).

The birth-statue
The birth of a child is a very important happening in the lives of the Balinese. Birth, childhood, adolescence, marriage and death are key moments for every Balinese person. The new born child is still very close to its ancestors and should be treated with respect. The soul of the child is regarded as the reincarnated soul of their ancestors. Therefore, the baby cannot touch the earth in the first three months of its life. The soul must remain as clean as possible. Upon death the body must be burned to purify the soul and only then it is ready to start a new, reincarnated life. The Balinese will bring sacrifices to honour their ancestors during their whole life.

The birth-statue in this auction was probably made between 1915 and 1920 and bears no signature. Important carvings dating from this period in good condition are rare. W.O.J. Nieuwenkamp purchased this carving during one of his travels to explore Bali. He probably brought it directly from the artist.

Not many birth-statues are known. The most probable reason being that these statues required a certain technical skill from the carver, so only the master carvers from a village were capable of making such a carving. The carving shows similarities to the birth-statue in the collection of ‘the Museum der Kulturen’ in Basel, Switzerland, which was collected by the Swiss Ernst Schlager who had visited Bali several times during the 1930s and befriended the famous painter Theo Meier. Furthermore, the Tropen Museum in Amsterdam has an old birth-statue in its collection.

Nieuwenkamp, as a Bali scholar, recognised the importance and significance of this statue. He gave it as a gift to the current owner in 1936. 

Ton Boutellier, May 2014