Getting Into The Groove With Cokorda Raka
Published 03 August 2012
To carve wood is an ancient, intricate, irreversible task that requires the artisan to gradually release the form “seen” or “found” within a piece of wood, instead of building up a form with some soft, malleable material.
Text: Rachel Love
The artist is sitting cross-legged on the floor of a pavilion at his Balinese compound home in Guwang village near Sukawati. He is working on some traditional pencil and black ink drawings, which must be finished in time for a big family cremation. The pictures depict scenes from the Hindu ‘Mahabharata’ epic, including some of the grisly, gruesome punishments that await sinners in hell. “What will happen to these drawing after the ceremony?” I ask. “Oh they’ll probably just get thrown away,” replies Raka with a shrug, “after the ceremony they won’t be important anymore.”
First and foremost, Cokorda Raka is a woodcarver, but he also paints and draws, and fulfills his duties to the banjar, the local village council, by overseeing the making of the bull and lion funeral sarcophagi for cremation ceremonies, and the scary ogoh ogoh monsters for Nyepi. In addition to all of this creative output, he has a full-time job as manager of Siam Sally Thai Restaurant in Ubud.
He’s surprised that I’m interviewing him, maintaining that he’s not really an artist, yet he’s lost count of all the times he’s had his work exhibited. When I push him, he manages to recall exhibitions in Singapore, Japan, Canada and Australia, as well in Bali at the prestigious Puri Lukisan and Neka art museums, Melia Bali Hotel, Bentara Budaya and the Art Centre in Denpasar. I’m charmed by his modesty and I tell him so. “I’m not modest,” he retorts, “I’m just being honest. I don’t consider myself to be an artist, I’m just like all the other Balinese, we’re all good at art; it’s an inherent skill.”
Raka first became fascinated with woodcarving at the age of three. “My father was a famous Balinese woodcarver in the ’70s and ’80s; I grew up with it. I was never taught the techniques, I just got used to seeing it being done, I handled the tools and I observed the methods. I also started drawing when I was a little kid, I used to draw in the dirt, and of course, to create a woodcarving you need to make a sketch first, so drawing skills are important.”
Raka’s father recognised his son’s talent but he didn’t push him. Instead Raka went to university in Jakarta and studied mathematics.
Woodcarvings are often produced collaboratively, so when Raka was at high school, his father would design and create pieces and Raka would then carve the details. Raka’s father recognised his son’s talent but he didn’t push him down the woodcarving road. Instead Raka went to university in Jakarta and studied mathematics. “From maths, I learnt a lot about art, it helped me to understand composition, anatomy, posture, balance and symmetry, measurements, angles, vanishing points and the construction of buildings.”
After gaining a teaching diploma, he taught maths to high school students in Jakarta for three years before returning to Bali in 1991, which was when he got back into the woodcarving groove. He had his work exhibited for the first time in 1995 at the Ulun Ubud Hotel. “I was asked to create some pieces in the contemporary style and my dad said “Raka what are you doing?” Up until then I had only ever followed my father’s style, which was traditional. Sometimes, I still create traditional carvings with lots of detail but I prefer the modern style.” His work is mainly figurative – angels, women, mermaids and animals, although occasionally he’ll produce something abstract. Yet, Hindu mythology, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and Balinese fables still run through his contemporary-styled work, so the artist admits it must be a fusion of old and new. “I guess I can’t run away from my traditional Balinese roots.”
Asked what inspires him, he replies, “The wood gives me the inspiration and dictates the lines that I should follow. It is about looking at what is already there and discovering how to shape the existing form in new ways.” After selecting the wood, Raka spends time with the raw material trying to decipher the story that it wants to tell. Then, he makes a sketch and begins carving the rough shape. Once the shape has been formed, he follows the grain to the next step of creating the features and the details.
Raka works with timbers such as frangipani, sandalwood, suar wood and panggal buaya, or crocodile wood, named after the knobby protrusions that cover the trunk. He maintains, “Crocodile wood is easy to carve because the grain is straight and clear; the trunk is not too big but the wood is solid, and the beautiful bark often becomes a feature of the carving.”
“Do you put your emotions into your work?” I query. “No”, the artist replies, “I have to feel calm and balanced, otherwise I’ll cut my hand. It’s no good if I’m feeling angry or sad, I work with wood when I’m feeling good and then I feel like I’m in heaven. I usually work on two or three pieces at any one time in case I get bored.”
“If I’m in love and feeling good, the colours are soft; if I’m angry, it’s all red and black.”
In 1998, Raka started painting for the first time. “My friends told me I was good at sketching and suggested I try painting. My early work was from traditional sketches but I was confused by colour. I then started painting directly onto the canvas from the palette without sketching because I discovered that the image was already in my head. If I’m in love and feeling good, the colours are soft; if I’m angry, it’s all red and black.”
Raka can’t slot his painting style into an art genre, but it could well be described as “occasionally figurative, abstract expressionism combined with an element of cubism”. Pretty damn good for a man who claims he’s not an artist!
Cokorda Raka’s artwork can be seen at Awa Gallery in Guwang, 20 minutes south of Ubud. www.balineseart.wordpress.com