20 Questions: Leyla Stevens on history and centering “Bali’s witch widow matriarch”


Your first art love?
I have many, but I do really remember seeing for the first time Hiroshi Sugimoto’s seascapes up close.

You work between Bali, Indonesia and Sydney—what does that crossover give your practice?
It’s the crossover space that I’m interested in—the friction, connection and creativity that comes from operating between disparate cultures.

Are there any contemporary Balinese or Indonesian artists you particularly admire?
For a long time I have looked to FX Harsono as an inspiration. The durational performances of Melati Suryodarmo are incredible—start with her iconic Butter Dance. And contemporary Balinese artists Citra Sasmita and I Made Djirna.

Your main mediums are moving image and photography—what drew you to these?
Initially it was through a keen teenage interest in analogue film and spending hours in the darkroom. Now I find the image such an important site for critical enquiry into the way we remember the past and sustain narratives.

Are there any cameras you particularly favour?
I now mostly work with digital film cameras, but the camera I will never give up is my medium format Hasselblad camera. It affords a level of secrecy when taking an image—something about looking down into the viewfinder and being able to carry it at chest level means you can move discreetly.

Leyla Stevens, Patiwangi, the death of fragrance (2021), 2 channel video, stereo sound, 8:57mins.

Your work looks at archives and history, creating pieces that shift between documentary and speculative fictions. How are you working with history and representation?
Archives and official histories often present as neutral or self-evident but when challenged, reveal themselves to be determined by discursive systems of power and desire. I’m interested in how the past is remembered, and locating who has been made absent from established canons. For example, in recent projects I find ways to recuperate the presence of female artists in Bali’s traditional arts, who are often misattributed in collections as assistants or remain anonymous.

In 2021, you won the 66th Blake Prize for Kidung/Lament, a three-channel video which looks at Bali’s history of political violence. The work focuses on Indonesia’s 1965 anti-communist massacres, in which more than 500,000 are said to have been killed (with 80,000 in Bali alone). How did you come to making work about this?
I had been aware of this history for some time but in an uninformed way and had never really connected these horrific stories I would hear, mostly through international media and artist-led activism projects, to my own experience of Bali. It wasn’t until family members and people closer to me started to share their stories from this time that I started to realise how ‘1965’ is this collective and intergenerational concern in Bali—descendants of victims are living alongside descendants of perpetrators.

I was also interested in how 1965 histories in Bali have been supressed by this sustained imagination of Bali as a peaceful paradise. We see this in the lack of state led accountability around 1965 abuses, but more literally, we can map how sites of 1965 trauma are lying buried underneath tourist topologies.

The work is framed on the pohon beringin or banyan tree, which marks an unacknowledged mass grave site from the massacres. What does it take for a site, moment, or symbol to capture your interest for an artwork?
That banyan tree was interesting to me as it is this highly visible landmark that signals an unseen presence. A lot of the work I made in response to that site was concerned with this question of visibility and understanding this history through its spectral and immaterial traces.

My research interest is usually instigated by these moments or symbols that conceptually feed into the final artwork. They aren’t obvious symbols, more like fragments or small anecdotes recorded in the margins of official records. I like this approach as it allows me to represent things in an indirect way, such as understanding a banyan tree as a living witness to these events.

When your work deals with trauma and history, how do you handle the deeply emotional side to your practice?
This is a good question, and maybe why in my more recent work I’ve shifted to less trauma defined histories. There is an emotional toll to working with traumatic pasts and there is a lot of responsibility when navigating trauma that is not your own. One reflection is that I work towards a reparative engagement with these histories, such as staging a lament or providing alternative forms of memorialisation. Hopefully the work is also not only concerned with excavating hidden histories, but also presenting the possibility of healing and reparation.

You often use multi-channel video installations—what do multiple channels allow, versus one channel?
It frees you up to make a non-linear narrative with multiple images unfolding and coinciding. Also it very quickly introduces connections between things that appear disparate, and this can be a powerful method when redressing how histories are usually told.

Installation View: Their Sea is Always Hungry (2019), UTS ART, Photo: Zan Wimberley.

If you could collaborate with any artist, dead or alive, who would it be?
Agnès Varda, she would have made filmmaking fun. And this is a bit random and outside of the arts, but David Attenborough. My secret desire is to make a nature documentary that is anti-spectacle and plays out like a piece of New Wave cinema. It would be so boring and beautiful.

Best colour to create with?
Black and white.

Order or chaos?
Naturally I go for order, but in reality I’m always working through the mess.

Quick advice for young artists?
Find and build your community.

Best time of day to create?
Dawn/dusk for the light.

Beauty or politics?
Everything is political! Including beauty.

The most interesting thing someone has said to you about your work?
I can’t remember an exact quote, but I get a lot of responses from people outside of the art world that my work really moved them, and I like that my work can speak to multiple audiences.

An art experience that’s stuck with you?
Going through the collection of Kamasan paintings at the Australian Museum which was established by Anthony Forge who carried out anthropological research in Bali in the 1970s.

I understand you’re creating new work for the 8th TarraWarra Biennial—can you talk through this?
I’m making a new film project on Rangda, who is Bali’s witch widow matriarch. She is regarded as a feared and dangerous force associated with trance and black magic. But she is also a powerful protector who, in dualism with the Barong, is necessary for spiritual balance. Rangda is most often cited through the Calonarang theatrical drama, which originally came from classical Javanese scriptures. The Calonarang play has been an important text for feminist thought in Indonesian literature including versions written by seminal authors such as Toeti Heraty and Cok Sawitri.

My approach has been to connect with Rangda’s lineage through performance traditions, where she is normally performed by men. A key scene is a rehearsal showing a group of female dancers learning and sharing knowledge on how to perform and embody Rangda. The other major scene was made in collaboration with Naarm-based musician Karina Utomo, who connects Rangda through a contemporary metal performance.

The Biennial looks at connections between the people of Australia, Asia and the Great Ocean. How do you see your practice aligned within this?
One idea I really connect to in Léuli Eshrāghi’s curatorial vision is the centring of ancestral and matrilineal knowledge as a way of mapping interconnections across island and ocean cultures. For me, Rangda is a kind of deviant force, her disciples are known to have the power to shapeshift. And conceptually I think of my work as shapeshifting Bali’s art canon through a matrilineal lens.

TarraWarra Biennial 2023: ua usiusi faʻavaʻasavili
TarraWarra Museum of Art (Healesville VIC)
1 April—16 July

This article was originally published in the March/April 2023 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Interview Words by Tiarney Miekus