Sinta Tantra (b.1979) is a Balinese artist based in the UK and Indonesia. She is world-famous for her colourful abstract paintings and site-specific murals. Having spent her childhood in Indonesia, the US, and the UK, she studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and the Royal Academy in London.
Tantra openly speaks about the stereotypical expectations she has encountered as a female artist of colour. As a student, she felt that her work needed to look "ethnic" and was encouraged by her teachers to reference particular cultural markers, such as batik. Such experiences contributed to who she is as an artist today, developing a modernist visual language to escape such stereotyping.
As an insider/outsider on the interface of European, American, and Indonesian traditions, Tantra has a unique multicultural outlook which enables her to merge elements from the various worlds she lives in. It also provided the opportunity for Tantra to carve out a career as an independent woman artist. This is no small feat, especially because being an independent woman artist in Bali is challenging given the culture, social pressure and expectations of women in society, and lack of art infrastructure.
Tantra's new series of paintings revolve around stories and family histories, or what she describes as, “constellations.” Researched for over a two year period throughout the pandemic, the exhibition draws inspiration from silhouettes of tropical foliage floating against a backdrop of abstract geometric forms and linen. Here we see influences from European painters such as Henri Matisse and Jean Arp layered together with the figurative forms of Balinese artist, Nyoman Lempad.
Fuelled by the desire to understand her artistic roots and place within her own family's “constellation,” Tantra interviewed her Balinese mother and father, asking them to share their childhood memories.
“I found that my great-grandfather was incredibly talented – a stone carver or undagi in Balinese, which is the same word as ‘architect.’ He would travel around Bali with his cousin, trying to get commissions. Both men worked on the elaborate stone carving of the majestic Ujung Water Palace, built by the King of Karangasem.”
The project was of such prestige that they were paid not in cash, but with a Balinese orange tree that was planted in the centre of their family compound. The oranges that grew from the tree were the literal fruits of the stone mason’s labour, a continued legacy of creativity, determination, and work ethic to which Tantra feels deeply connected.
This story is depicted in the small triptych Two cousins (Batu Bata) (2022), Taksu (A Reincarnation) (2022) and Taman Ujung (A Water Palace) (2022). Although abstract in composition, the two circles in the middle could be interpreted as the two cousins, an illustration of their friendship and brotherhood. 'Batu Bata' refers to a type of Balinese stone or brick, represented here by rectangular forms.
The large triptych painting Taksu (A Reincarnation) 2022 forms the central nucleus of the exhibition. According to the Balinese, taksu is an innate creative power one is simply born with - something that cannot be taught. This painting reflects the taksu of her forefathers and perhaps a reincarnated spirit within her. Fluidly flowing from one panel to the next, gold circles merge, symbolising the cycle of life, rebirth and the essence of DNA itself.
Triptych panels are a returning compositional format in Tantra's work; it talks of the power of three, past-present-future as well as family connections, or “constellations” between mother-father-daughter, grandfather-cousin-granddaughter. Against Tantra's backdrop, we could all be seen as constellations of stars, held together by a central force which keeps us floating.
Inspired by Sol LeWitt’s different interpretations of the same elements, Constellations of Being I-III (2022) gave the show its title. A dark blue background shifts from raw linen to blues. This series depicts cosmology and the gradual effect of change, as seen in the lunar phases, or when night turns into day, and the masculine-feminine. The golden halo-like circles give the paintings a religious yet also playful tone.
Family histories and memories
Abstract compositions in rich blues, pinks and 24-carat gold leaf punctuate across the canvas, acting as cyphers that for Tantra symbolise a personal journey and exploration. Inspired by her recently discovered family history, where she interviewed her mother and father, these paintings, explore the sense of being and belonging, the fluidity of migration, identity, the shift from human to the global, merging colonial past with the present to form new dialogues and ways of relooking and reconnecting. The series explores Tantra’s past within past constellations of family to create new constellations of history, emotions, experiences, as well as shapes, colours, and materials.
“I want to connect with people on a level that transcends words and cultures. I have a vocabulary of shapes and colours that I can arrange and de-arrange and a self- constructed set of rules that I can adhere to or, at times, break,” Tantra says. “I’m interested in creating a kind of tension for the viewer in the compositions and combinations, a place where they can find their own narrative, where I can find my own narrative.”
Taman Ujung (A Water Palace) (2022) sees the continuation of the story of the two cousins - Tantra’s grandfather and his cousin who built the water palace in Karangasem who were rewarded with a pohon jeruk or an orange tree for their hard labour. A leave- like form sprawls across the canvas, its opulence resembling an orange tree leaf but could also be interpreted as a splash of water, while the colours of the work evoke a rainbow.
Another series of three are odes to family members. Indah Ripon (Black Magic) (2022) takes its title from Tantra’s paternal grandmother rumoured to have been the most beautiful woman in the village. Cast under a black magic spell, she was forcibly married to Tantra’s grandfather. The story made Tantra reflects on the historical position of women and the complex nature of female beauty and patriarchal systems. Here, feminine beauty and innocence are represented in the decorative, harmonised pinks with gold, a cut-out coral motif revealing the bare canvas.
Harsiam (Broken Eggs) (2022) is an ode to Tantra’s maternal grandmother. As a single parent family, her grandmother Harsiam and her mother Partini, were very close. Sharing the same bed every night, Harsiam told bedtime stories to her daughter. These were mostly tales of morality, karma, the laws of cause and effect, and Indonesian folk stories of kancil the mouse deer. One day Partini was sent to the market to buy eggs but accidentally broke them on the way home. Afraid to go home with the broken eggs, the charcoal seller gifted her the charcoal. She then used the spare money to buy new eggs. Partini did not tell her mother but her guilt made her confess that night. The round shapes in this painting refer to the broken eggs and the bond between mother and daughter. The circle could be interpreted as the cyclical nature of storytelling from one generation to the next, while the floating angelic figure seems to be a lonely yet strong figure, much like Harsiam herself.
In Remben (Purusa) (2022) Tantra dedicated the painting to her paternal grandfather, who was the only boy in his family of four children. According to the Balinese law of purusa, Remben eventually inherited everything while his sisters received nothing. The family were neither rich nor poor but were comfortably off until Remben started to gamble and continued to gamble until after one dramatic night, lost everything. The intense monochromatic dark blue of this painting references the dark side of Tantra’s grandfather, while the gold expresses a mysterious and alluring side, the promise of something good. The contrast between the dark and gold reflects the paradoxical character of Tantra’s grandfather.
Dong Luh (She Stopped Telling Me, And I Stopped Crying) (2022) refers to one of the aunts on Tantra’s father’s side. Tantra’s father, Wayan, would visit his aunt at night where she would tell him stories, much like Tantra’s grandmother Harsiam. One evening, a story made him so sad he cried. “She stopped telling me and I stopped crying” is quoted from Tantra’s father. Against the blue background of the painting, the white silhouette provides calmness and silence, much like a mother soothing her crying baby. The figure symbolises a moon goddess, which within Balinese culture, is seen as the protector of children and whose cycle is celebrated each month during purnama or the full moon, which means perfect.
The painting Mukri (Combing My Hair by the River) (2022) is dedicated to Tantra’s maternal grandfather, who died at such a young age during the revolusi period that Tantra’s mother does not even remember his face. Her reflection of him: “I remember him taking me to take me to bath in the river, in the waterfalls. My hair would be soaking wet after and he would lay me down in a trench where there was a stream of water. He lay me down there and brushed my hair with his fingers so it looked like it was nicely brushed. That’s all [I remember].” The compositional arrangements between the blue and white illustrate the scene between father and daughter by the river, whilst the pink organic form reveals the tender and intimate act of combing one’s fingers through someone’s hair. Although the memories of Tantra’s mother are not entirely blank, the raw linen background represents how we often project absent memories onto our own internal canvas, making sense of the world.
It is evident how the paintings in Constellations of Being have been deeply influenced by Tantra’s various family members, casting a light on the women, the mothers, the grandmothers, and aunts; each of them are female characters who are strongly present. Overshadowed by the male characters of history books, Constellations of Being, in this sense, is an ode to the underrepresented women of Indonesia whose roles and positions were and continue to be confined to conservative values and family framework. In this sense, the triptych, Tantra as the tertiary generation of women in her family is starting to challenge traditional gender roles in Balinese society.
These different stories and relations culminate in the immersive three-dimensional installation of Balinese cut rocks, sand, mirror, glass pieces, coral, incense sticks, flowers, fruit and photographic archival material. Constellations of Being (installation) (2022) physically invites the viewer to sit, reflect, smell and listen. Like Balinese offerings or Canangs, each object is carefully positioned, like a cluster of stars, individually symbolising part of a significant story or feeling from the narratives described by her mother and father in the shown video. The installation is set against an abstract soundscape created in collaboration with sound artist Thibaut Vandamme, evoking the journey of self- exploration and our relationships to the past, present, and future.
Materiality & Affect
Introducing figurative forms in her paintings has allowed Tantra to layer narrative stories with formal abstract composition.
Tantra creates her paintings with tempera paint on portrait linen, working with organic materials and minerals which she describes as 'living and breathing. Multiple layers of tempera paint are sanded between coats resulting in an immaculate, colour rich, powdery finish. This painted surface contrasts against the areas of unpainted linen, finely woven and unveiling the very structure of painting itself.
The emphasis on materiality is articulated in Tantra's artistic process itself. While the visual compositions are created digitally, the paintings are executed by hand in the studio through meticulous preparation. The very act of painting itself happens quickly, performed on a stretched canvas, laid horizontally across table trestles.
Tantra reflects on her artistic process: “I don't actually see the painting until the very end when all the masking tape is taken off. Due to the fragility of the tempera paint, corrections are difficult, the process is unforgiving, and there is no space for errors. It is like calligraphy where you have just one shot at making it work.”
In the last two years, Tantra has experimented with gold. Drawn to its universal appeal throughout the ages, Tantra applies gold leaf to her paintings. And whilst paint absorbs light, gold reflects and shines, continuously shifting as the light fades from day to night, from viewer to viewer as they move or walk around, allowing for shifting meanings and experiences.