Potters, painters, maskmakers, woodcarvers, and weavers fill every storefront in Ubud, Bali. Wander down a back alley and you find studios at every turn. Art is a part of daily life from the colorful temple celebrations to the picture-postcard terraced rice fields on its outskirts. But until recently, women artists were unrecognized in this rich culture.
British-born Mary Northmore visited this magical land in 1984, was enchanted by the surroundings, and decided to stay. An art lover, she began to search for women artists to befriend in her new home, but she was shocked to discover that women were not represented in most of Ubud's galleries. She ended up founding the Seniwati Gallery of Art by Women, in 1991, the only gallery in Indonesia (and Asia) devoted to collecting, exhibiting, and promoting the work of women artists. In the process, she changed her own life and that of women artists in the region.
In the small space that houses the Seniwati (literally "art women") Gallery, she humbly discusses her role, but is quick to give credit to the artists themselves and the Indonesian women she has trained to run the gallery.
"I make a point of keeping a low profile and let my assistants handle things," she says.
A top Balinese expert on art told her there are no women artists because women have no sense of color and don't like to get dirty. Ms. Northmore didn't believe him and started searching village after village for women artists. As she suspected, there were many of them out there. Many of these women had learned to paint by helping husbands or fathers. Often when she met them, right in front of a woman's family, Northmore would buy a painting and pay the asking price to prove that the work had earning potential.
In a society where money is not personal but a family matter, it is difficult for a woman to spend money on art supplies. "One woman stole materials from her husband [a painter] because she couldn't get it any other way," she says. "He caught her and was delighted. Some men are very good about it. I don't think it was discrimination or disempowerment of women; it was just a difference in gender roles."
"To be a woman artist in Bali is hard. All women have responsibilities to their family and to society," says Dewa Biang Raka, one of Bali's first women artists. She was encouraged by her husband, a respected painter trained by Rudolph Bonnet, a foreign patron of Balinese art in the 1930s and '50s. "I always make time to paint. Two hours a day."
Ms. Dewa Biang persisted 40 years without support from or contact with other women artists. She admits to being lonely. Northmore discovered what the women craved most: a sense of community and connection with other women.
"[Other women artists] could be in the next village, but they didn't know about each other," she says. "A very important part of our work is to bring them into contact with each other. They already have the skills. They don't need classes, but inspiration, encouragement, and the courage to show their work and not hide in the shadows."
Seniwati represents one maskmaker and 43 painters ranging from teens to seniors and with styles from traditional Balinese flora and fauna, or mythology, to contemporary. They have all benefited from Northmore's promotion outside Bali. Some have become their family's main breadwinner and traveled abroad to show their work.
"The first thing I felt was pride," says Dewa Biang about being a member of the Seniwati Gallery. "We are stronger together as women artists. Many men are painters, but I was the first woman I knew of who painted. I knew there were other women painting here in Bali. Now I feel empowered. Because of Mary, women have become a power."
Dewa Biang also teaches schoolgirls. Art schools for boys already existed, but none for girls. With help from foreign sponsors, free classes are offered to promising young artists who've proven themselves in the Schoolgirl Art Contests.
"When I was a child, I starting painting seriously at age 8 or 9," says Gusti Murni, one of the younger members of the gallery. "No one encouraged me. Now I live in Ubud and everybody's painting. I came here so I could paint."
"Almost all of my work is about my mind and my inspiration," says Ms. Murni, who paints in a modern style. "When I had a broken heart, when I was happy or sad, I could put it all onto the canvas. I only feel good when I paint. Everything in my soul goes onto the canvas. I have my inspiration from the gallery with so many different styles.
"When I have no money, I ask Mary if she will buy a painting so I can buy supplies. She always helps."
"I have certain advantages and resources that I can make available," Northmore says. "I'm the fortunate one to be able to come in and help these amazing women."
* The first show of Seniwati artists outside Indonesia will be at Butterfields Club in Hong Kong, Oct. 15 to Nov. 5.