Joe Fischer took his bachelor’s in American Colonial History in the early 1950s, and was leaning toward Middle Eastern Studies for his master’s. Then a combination of circumstances nudged him toward Indonesian studies. Once he had seen Bali, he was hooked. From 1956 until 2004, he made frequent visits to Bali, studying Balinese history and mythology and collecting Balinese textiles, embroideries, and paintings. He has written six books, including Folk Art of Java and Folk Art of Bali (both from Oxford University Press) and, most recently, Story Cloths of Bali (Ten Speed Press, 2006).
“There are more craftspeople, more creativity on this small island of Bali than you could ever imagine,” says Joe. “Today, what was once a wholly cultural, universal expression, has become a means of sustenance—because what is commonplace to the Balinese is stunning to a visitor,” and even more impressive if the visitor becomes familiar with the Hindu and indigenous mythology of Bali. Not only do prints on cloth relate stories from the Ramayana or the Mahabarata, but the decorated detail of small paintings on paper portray vivid figures from traditional stories.
The great monkey hero, Hanuman, may be familiar to you, but have you ever heard the complex story of the giant demon Kala Rauh, whom the gods catch drinking the milk of immortality? Vishnu decapitates Kala Rauh, but not before the milk has reached his throat, so that his now-immortal head eternally rolls around the heavens seeking revenge by trying to swallow the sun and the moon-hence, of course, the occasional eclipse (always successfully aborted in the old days by people running out into the streets, beating pots and pans to drive away the voracious head of Kala Rauh.)
Over the years, along with the Balinese embroideries and paintings, Joe accumulated innumerable Chinese paper cuts. “Papercuts are works of highly perishable folk art you find in few countries: Mexico, Poland, Israel, and China. In the 1950s, during the Cultural Revolution, China was sending thousands of them—some the size of your palm, some as large as a book page—all over the region, as a kind of cultural-diplomatic offering. This is an old craft, practiced by almost every villager, often pasted on window covers, decorative but transitory; people must have been cutting new ones constantly. Stencils were made for easier cutting of popular designs.” We have all seen foot-square colorful Mexican paper cuttings in abstract designs, hanging on strings across the ceiling at our favorite restaurants, but, says Joe, “I don’t think mounted and framed Chinese papercuts are even available in the U. S. No one, to my knowledge, has displayed them or written a book about them.”
Gingerly drawing examples from envelopes kept in carefully covered boxes, Joe explains how, using a tiny pointed tool and small scissors, people cut astonishingly delicate shapes: symbolic (chrysanthemum means fortitude; lotus, fertility), or mythological (characters from Chinese opera), or political (People’s Army soldiers). These cuttings are so fragile, you can barely touch one to take it out of its envelope, without damaging it. Materials and frames for display could cost hundreds of times the amount paid for a piece acquired from an Asian street stall. Perhaps that is why Joe’s Chinese papercuts, along with the small, vividly colored Balinese paintings on paper, remained carefully packed in storage for so many years.
A few years ago Joe began frequenting Salvation Army and Goodwill stores for exotic or plain little frames. At the East Bay Depot for Reuse he found a treasure trove of supplies for mounting, say, a delicate, silvery paper “celestial maiden” against a mat of exactly the right shade of sea green.
Now he is ready to show and tell at the Giorgi Gallery. This may be the only culturally unique folk art show where you’ll ever be able to acquire a Balinese painting of moon goddess Dewi Ratih, for as little as $35 or a framed Chinese papercut of a magical bird in flight for $15.
Just looking, of course, is free.
Asian Folk Art:
Balinese Paintings and Chinese Papercuts
March 22 to April 12 at Giorgi Gallery, 2911 Claremont Ave. 848-1228. Gallery Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
Opening Reception 1-6 p.m. Sunday, March 22. Light refreshments and Live Balinese Music. 2 p.m. lecture by Joe Fischer.