I believe there is a time and place for cheap and tacky souvenirs. There is nothing wrong with filling your pockets with magnets and little keepsakes that you just purchased with your last foreign change at the airport. I know many people who like to collect these items and who appreciate if you can add to their collection.
Personally, I prefer buying something more substantial to take home. Usually this will be a piece of art. In the South Pacific I have come to love the handcrafted totems and depictions of gods and goddesses, and my collection now encompasses some sinister yet beautifully crafted figures with feather hats, spears and sculptured coconut leaf skirts.
Not only are they a wonderful addition to my household, they also take me back to the most precious moments I had in that particular location – looking at them is a bit like going on holidays all over again! Plus, if you make a point of buying from local craftspeople you are ensuring that your tourist dollars will go into the right pockets, not into the wholesaler’s coffers in a different country altogether.
In Bali I had the chance of visiting a woodcarver’s workshop where our group was introduced to the delicate art of Balinese woodcraft. As you probably know, the Balinese are champions when it comes to sculpturing and crafting with wood, and I am yet to find a woodcraft item from Bali that I couldn’t help but admire. You will find these elaborate sculptures everywhere around the island, mostly as part of the house design or with an ornamental purpose. While all of Indonesia like to get their hands on woodcarving, the Balinese designs are particularly intricate, elaborate and pretty, with a natural, organic looking finish.
The workshop visit was interesting insofar as we were given a little speech about the different aspects of traditional woodcarving, including the materials used and the processes.
In Bali, for example, they use precious woods such as ebony and mahogany, surprisingly both of which have to be brought onto the island first as they are not native to or are no longer growing in abundance in Bali. If these quite common woods not your thing, there is also the beautiful two-coloured hibiscus tree wood, which comes in two colours: a white area and a grey area which later turns into a more greenish colour with ageing.
This play of colours is random and will give any sculpture a very interesting two-coloured effect. Lastly, crocodile wood is also a popular wood used by Balinese woodcarvers – the name comes from the bark which resembles the skin of a crocodile. Once finished, it has a really nice shine to it which almost resembles ivory.
The process of woodcarving takes around 2 weeks for a statue 20cm in size and up to 9 months for a whole ensemble of almost life-sized dancers. There are no sketches when it comes to traditional woodcarving in Bali – the artist will just start taking off bits and pieces from the block with a small chisel to work it down into ever more intricate shapes and curves. When all the basic work is done the piece is handed over to a person specialised in polishing; in most cases this will be a woman. It is tedious work that requires a lot of patience, but in the end the piece only needs to be finished with some oil to protect it from insects and environmental influences.
I found many different objects at the woodcarver’s workshop, some of them quite surprising. Of course there are panels for the wall, as well as masks and other hanging objects. Lots of Asian themes such as temple dancers, dragons, Buddhas and demons, but also humble fishermen, owls, colourful elephant heads and even Christian angels. I guess whatever can be sold to tourists will also be produced.
Balinese woodcarving make for wonderful, unique souvenirs that you will be proud to take home. There is a very long tradition of this craft in the island (in fact, we drove past so many other types of speciality businesses, all producing handmade objects such as stone vessels, wooden furniture and giant garden statues) and it’s really worthwhile taking a taxi out to one of the traditional workshops rather than buying in the airport souvenir shop.
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