Sunday, December 13, 2009

Street Arts for the Earth

The Balinese barong has been described as a cross between a lion and a caterpillar. With a carved wooden head worn by one dancer and a long body made of raffia or palm fiber, the far end of which is worn by another dancer, the barong is a benevolent creature that appears at Balinese sacred dance performances to bring peace and well-being.

On Sunday, December 6, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia, a different kind of barong came to life, and in a way that well suited this particular gathering, whose theme is “Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth.”

The World Peace Barong was conceived in 2003 at an international gathering called "Sharing Art & Religiosity," held in the vicinity of the temple Pura Samuan Tiga in Bedulu, Bali. Painter I Wayan Sudiarta from the village of Peliatan got the idea of creating a barong made of materials offered by people from any culture and faith. The mask of the barong was carved by Tjok Alit, a maskmaker in Singapadu, Bali. Elements that arrived from twenty-three other lands to adorn it included prayer bells from Japan, cow bells from Switzerland, feathers from India, and fabric from Assisi, Italy.

As the barong prepared to journey to Australia, parliament officials became concerned that its many natural materials would prevent it from clearing customs smoothly. As a result the World Peace Barong traveled with new black velvet garments. Garuda Airlines designated it executive class. At Melbourne's airport, customs officials greeted it graciously, charmed by its gentle, smiling face. But once the seventeen-kilo barong arrived at the Melbourne convention center, there was no place to put it. The sacred barong actually spent one night in the kitchen convention center, laughed Suprato Suyodarmo, Indonesian movement artist and founder of the Padepokan Lemah Putih school in Solo, Central Java.

The barong danced "Tri Yoni Saraswati" with eight artists from Bali and South Sulawesi for the International Plenary of sacred music. Although it was scheduled for an interactive session with parliament participants in one of the meeting rooms of the convention center, Suprato conceived of another idea.

He had noticed a strange figure, dressed in black and bearing a dire warning, who stood all day every day at the entrance to the convention center. Benny Zable, of Nimbun, New South Wales, and Woodstock, New York, wore a gas mask and a long black cloak on which were painted the words, FOSSIL FOOLS and THERE ARE NO JOBS ON A DEAD PLANET. Day after day he stood there, his hands rising and falling in mute supplication or despair. A few people stopped to look at him, but most rushed past.

Because Suprato Suryodarmo is interested in the relationship of sacred theatre and the natural environment, he asked Zable if the World Peace Barong could join him on the plaza. Late on the afternoon of the 6th, when most of the parliament participants were attending sessions inside the convention center, Suryodarmo and Diane Butler, an American dancer who has lived and danced in Bali for many years, carried the barong out to the front of the convention center and arranged it with offerings on the pavement. After sitting on the ground and praying softly, Suryodarmo rose and began to dance. His feet moved with slow-motion precision, turning in perfect balance. His hands and long fingers created mudras, formal patterns of meaning. Then Benny Zable began to move in response. Both the Indonesian dancer and the Australian street artist moved in harmony, their movements reflected in the tall plate glass windows of the convention center as the barong stared benignly out at the passing crowd.

One dancer brought a message of peace through the form of a figure from an ancient religious tradition; the other delivered a message of environmental urgency through artistic improvisation. One was dressed in traditional ceremonial clothing, one in a hand-made costume. Together they wove a message that religious leaders of many faiths were attempting to spread inside the convention center all week: in matters of environmental stewardship and peace among nations, it is only through creative collaboration, the willingness to listen to others, and the invention of new forms of expression that change can occur.

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