Donald Friend in Bali
In Denpasar, there is a cafe where tourists like to go for iced fruit juice, poached eggs and cheese and tomato sandwiches. We ordered banana pancakes and settled down to wait. The only other customers, a young Dutch couple, sat a couple of tables away murmuring to each other. Two pancakes arrived on a tray, but evidently not for us. They were taken to the Dutch couple. We craned anxiously in case there was some mistake; but no, they were attacked and devoured immediately.
We settled again.
About thirty seconds later the Dutchman poked the last end of pancake between his bearded lips, glared at the waitress and said loudly and crossly in English: `We did not order banana pancakes’, and again, with gesticulations `We … did … not … order … pancakes. Do you understand?’
Like the Balinese, we had been defeated by the Dutch. We could wait no longer and we left the cafe sad and still hungry.
In Jalan Kartini, we caught a colt with a capacity of eight and carrying a dozen, so we sat cheek to cheek. At Sanur, we were looking for the house of Donald Friend, the Australian painter. `You are looking for a friend?’ said a smiling girl, misunderstanding.
`Donald Friend.’ We laid emphasis on `Donald’. At the third try, her smile broadened.
‘Tuan Donald.’ She knew of him of course and showed us the way to go. `Ask anyone for Tuan Donald.’
From the main road, we walked through an ordered grove sad and still hungry.
palms were planted on straight lines and golden cattle grazed on green, green grass.
‘Tuan Donald?’ said a young boy, and he pointed to a small low built house. Tacked onto the garden gate was a notice which read that this was not a gallery, that paintings were not for sale, the visitors were not welcome during hours of work or sleep and no children were allowed.
Nevertheless, we had a letter to deliver. We struck a wooden bell that hung nearby, but this had no effect. We slid through the garden gate and knocked bravely on the door. The man who came had a kindly expression and a gentle voice `Donald Friend?
We handed him our letter.
`We are writing and would like to interview you.’ `When?
Next time we struck the wooden bell, a houseboy met us at the garden gate where the terse note hangs and he led us to the pavilion where Donald Friend was relaxing over a succession of drinks. The prototype for this elevated pavilion, which was surrounded on three sides by a shallow moat with carp and water lilies, was the pavilion of judgement at the old palace at Klungkung, a classic example of Balinese architecture.
`A serenely useless building’, says Friend; `that is, if you believe peace and quiet and the pleasures of contemplation to be useless … or conversation and cool drinks at sundown’.
The pavilion was placed on top of a plain rectangular, brick base. There were wood carvings, bamboo musical instruments and bamboo furniture scattered about. Nothing was present for the sake of ostentation. Again, there was texture and atmosphere and colours were muted. In the evening light, looking over the coconut grove, with a slight movement in the air, here was a good feeling of peace.
We sat and talked of magic, while a Balinese youth fielded empty glasses as they touched the table and just as smoothly replaced them refilled.
Donald Friend had lived in Bali for nine years and is matter of fact about magic. `For instance’, he said, `if I am going to have a party, I have a dukun, witch doctor, come in the morning to make sure there will be no rain’. He enjoyed our wide eyed wonderment.
`It works?’ we said.
`Oh yes. It can be raining everywhere else and all around, and here it will be dry. Of course, if you have an enemy, he might hire a dukun too, to work stronger magic.’
`Really?’ we said.
`Do you want a formal interview?’ said Donald Friend, `or would you prefer to just sit like this and talk?’
We wanted to change nothing. I said: `You are fond of the Balinese. Are they fond of you?
‘I think so’, he said, `Because I don’t bore them. Balinese hate to be bored. They might think me a little mad. I do crazy things, but they like that. “Tuan Raksasa” they nicknamed me. They think of me as a benevolent Demon’.
If one of his employees must marry for the sake of an expected child, Donald Friend might be asked to provide a house. The boy who was serving the drinks so expertly and often, was given by his father to Friend as a servant, at the age of six. He was afflicted with a cleft palate and would not attempt to speak. In the village, his chances were slim. Donald Friend took him to Australia for a series of operations. The boy’s courage was admirable said Friend. To be in a strange country might be overwhelming; to be in a hospital ward amongst drip tubes and cylinders and bossy nurses, the like of which he had never imagined, must have been downright terrifying. Add to that the pain caused by surgery inside the boy’s mouth. Not once did he complain or show the fear he must have felt.
In the large room beneath the pavilion, we saw the painter’s own collection. He browsed over it fondly. Bronze Gods and Goddesses, animals, mythical beasts, small lively figures from the past, stand in sharp silhouette against white walls. Donald Friend has collected many pieces for the National Museum in Canberra, hoping they will be appreciated. A figure of elephant-headed Ganesa, Remover of Obstacles, God of Voyages, danced and displayed an elephant-sized erection. A unique piece, according to Friend. `Very Balinese. In Balinese art, the Gods, of course, are never mocked, but often teased. Even in the most sacred statues there are elements of wit and humour, in accordance with the idea that this life is a diversion, a joke played upon us. Like the Balinese themselves, the Gods won’t put up with boredom.’
Touching the rare piece I asked, `Where did you find it?’
His answer was characteristically Indonesian, with undertones to be left intact.
`It came to me.’
There were two bronzes of the Goddess Dewi Sri spreading plague. Rats emerged from her forehead. They were primitive, sinister, and according to Friend, made Balinese people feel uncomfortable. The small dark figures set in rows took on the look of written figures on white paper; and that is close to fact for those who can read the story. Also in the collection room were doors which Donald Friend commissioned a Balinese artist to carve. While he worked the carver lived in the house. He was asked to create something which represented the household. Donald Friend himself is there, painting; his ancient motor-car, filled with his caricatured servants; the pavilion being built.
Donald Friend loves rich imagery – in other’s work and his own. He showed us a few of his own paintings: Balinese figures, a boy with a guitar against a gold leaf background, a pair of lovers.
`It is the first time for years that I have used gold leaf’, he said.
I remembered gold leaf used in his Ned Kelly send-up: `One lump or two, Edward?’ said Mrs. Kelly, pouring tea.
Side by side with the restrained, sure drawing of figures, we saw wild little fantasies; small insect figures warring rudely; brash, funny, formless figures spread across the page. `Artists attacking critics.’ he said, probably on the spur of the moment. He said he was dreaming up an erotic book. I am sure that, like the doors by the Balinese carver, it will be busy, direct, humorous and beautifully executed. No wonder he gets on so well with Bali.
It was late. The thought of the notice on the gate made us feel guilty.
`I put that up because I just cannot be rude to people’, he said. `It might stop charabancs from arriving.’
A well-mannered boy lit us to the main road where we would catch a colt again for Denpasar. We looked back and saw Donald Friend making his way, without hurry, towards his house. A solitary man, living and painting in the way he wanted.