Bali, Indonesia – Sixty years ago, I Ketut Soki was the delighted recipient of his first painting kit – and since that day he has rarely put down his brushes.
“I still have the spirit of painting. I still have a lot of ideas, ”he told Al Jazeera.
“I paint to maintain Balinese culture. I want to show people from abroad about Bali. I paint the island… harvest, rice fields, cultivate.
The 72-year-old was one of the pioneers of the painting style known as the Young Artist, known for his vivid and colorful depictions of Balinese life.
But the island’s art scene is now different, and many artists at the once thriving cultural center are struggling. Bali’s borders are closed to foreign tourists – and in their absence, sales prospects are limited.
“The artists feel the impact,” Soki said. “A lot of people have stopped painting because it’s so hard to sell now.”
Each painting can take over 150 hours to complete, but Soki says he’s had no choice but to lower his prices.
He still considers himself one of the lucky ones because, with the help of his granddaughter, Dewa Ayu Candra Dewi, he is able to sell some coins.
“We started promoting her paintings on Instagram at the start of COVID because a lot of galleries closed,” she says.
“The other day we sent a painting to the United States by mail.”
‘All I can do’
Others are grappling with the new reality.
For many who inhabit this legendary island, life changed when the borders closed.
In the village of Batuan, craftsman Wayan Madru carves and paints traditional masks. He studied this trade while he was still in elementary school.
Before the pandemic, he sold his masks to foreign tourists as souvenirs.
“There are 304 families in this village and 95% are mask artisans. Due to COVID, all sales have been canceled, ”he said.
“Artists depend on tourism, now there is no more. We cannot find a job and life is so difficult.
He said his income had been reduced to around $ 30 per month.
Some artists in the village have turned to other jobs during the pandemic, but the 61-year-old says that is not an option for him.
“I am old. I can’t work on a construction site, I don’t have the strength, ”he says.
For months there has been speculation about the travel corridors, but ambitious plans to reopen Bali have so far come to naught.
Yet in anticipation of that day, vaccinations for tourism workers are underway.
“We are very optimistic, hope that in a short time we will be able to reopen the borders for the revival of tourism and the economy,” said Sandiaga Uno, Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy.
Bali’s arts and tourism sectors are closely entwined. In normal circumstances, tour guides take travellers to galleries to see and buy the works on display but now, most guides have had to find other work and some have returned to their villages and the land.
Komang Suarmika, a guide for more than 17 years, is working on a construction site.
“We try to survive with what little we have, we sold our jewellery and other belongings,” he said. “My wife cannot work because our children are young.
“We can’t count too much on tourism for now. What I can do now is hard labour in construction. I’ll do anything for my family.”
While working as a guide, Suarmika taught himself to speak Korean – a useful skill in his previous work and one he hopes he will be able to use once again.
“Economic-wise, this is bad and painful,” he said.
“But this is a lesson for me, to be stronger mentally. And a lesson for our economy, in the future we should not only rely on one thing.”
Indonesian environmental groups have long criticized Bali’s approach to mass tourism and are increasing calls for a more sustainable model centered on arts, culture and nature.
“Mass tourism has created many problems. The beaches are contaminated, there are uncontrolled developments… and a water crisis, ”said I Made Juli Untung Pratama of the Indonesian Environment Forum (WALHI).
“We should not rely on the quantity of tourists … mass tourism is moving away from Balinese culture and way of life.”
Gallery owner Gede Susilo Dharma, who is based in the cultural center of Ubud Island, hopes that it won’t be long before tourists return.
“This is the worst situation. The darkest moment for the world of tourism. There have been incidents like the Bali bombings and volcanic eruptions. But it’s worse now, ”he said.
The 45-year-old is the owner of the Mammoth Gallery, which sells handmade wooden statues purchased from artists on the island.
While many artists have been forced to seek other forms of employment, Dharma says he is trying to keep traditional crafts alive.
He continues to commission new sculptures to support artists – even though his income has fallen by almost 100%.
“Wood carving is a traditional art of Bali. You need talent – you cannot learn it through formal education,” he said. “If the artists stop, such a great tradition can disappear.”
International media often refer to Bali as a resort island or tropical paradise.
But for Dharma, the island is more than that. It is home – and seeing many Balinese persevere through the economic devastation the pandemic has wrought is deeply personal for him.
While many galleries and businesses have shut down or closed their doors temporarily, the Mammoth Gallery has stayed open.
“Our gallery has to stay alive, we will never shut it down,” he said.
“I want the world to know that we are still fighting.”