Sunday, April 15, 2007

“Covarrubias in Bali” A book about a Mexican and his love for Bali’s Performing Arts.

I was amazed by this book the moment I saw it on the book-shelves at one of Bookazine’s branches in Singapore in October 2006. For some stupid reason I didn’t buy it, so every time I mentioned or recalled it, I regretted not buying it. Perhaps that wasn’t too bad, since that gave me time to learn more about Miguel Covarrubias and his work.

It was that same year, in December, that looking for English books in another of Bookazine’s branches, this time in Bangkok, Thailand, that I had the chance to see it again. Although “Covarrubias in Bali” might not be the highest quality art book in the market, specially these days when we see an improvement in the quality of art books, for any Mexican (like me) it can represent something important, and for a Mexican my age even more so, and I’ll explain why.

Most of Mexican elementary education books from the 70s were full of illustrations by Covarrubias’ hands, moreover, for many elementary students there were the well known “monografías” that everyone would buy at any stationary. Many of these “monografías” were made with Covarrubias’ illustrations: maps of the world with colourful drawings of traditions and costumes, clothing, important sights of every country, all of them done with beautiful colors and with a simplicity I could call innocent (made, after all, by a caricaturist), innocence that showed a general view of the culture, innocence that taught.

Then, when I saw this book, I didn’t see Covarrubias, I saw my childhood and a big part of my education on World Geography. I was drawn to it because of the time that had passed, because of the memories. I loved that book.

After the surprise of the first encounter I became aware of what I had in my hands, “Covarrubias in Bali”… That was the first opportunity in my life to understand more deeply the work of a man who, under the light of my crude cultural background had been nothing more than an educative illustrator. Since that instant I can see in him a great Mexican artist, a traveler, an scholar, a polyglot, a social anthropologist, and of course the illustrator and, specially for me, a researcher of performing arts.

Covarrubias traveled with his wife, the American dancer Rose Covarrubias, to the island of Bali on two occasions in the 1930s; there, they observed, studied and took notes on every aspect of the island’s performing arts in the island. Bali is a special case, an even unique one, in human history: a small portion of earth possesses such richness of theatrical manifestations such as dances for rituals and entertainment, ritual theater, opera, music, and puppet theater.

The Covarrubias couple worked during those two stays getting practical information for the promotion of Balinese culture around the world, and they succeeded in their time: many editions of sia Magazine, interviews, articles, commercial confection of Bali style clothing, world recognition of its theatrical wealth, etc. Bali arrived to forever stay in the world of the common western man (who Covarrubias always addressed) thanks to this couple and some other artists and researchers who visited this Pacific Island looking for a sanctuary away from the stressing technological and consumerist moment they lived.

The importance of this illustrative and photographic material can’t be measured. Every dance seen by them has a drawing with all the general aspects of the performance, and many others with the main poses, steps, movements; Rose took dozens of photographs of all that, and I hope, somewhere there are even films.

The Covarrubias diary and field notes become a delicacy for our eyes, thanks to the beauty of the lines and strokes, for the interpretation of movements and the specialness of the subjects.

As a Mexican I felt proud for what a compatriot did exploring strange worlds, but as a performer and a man of theater I felt deeply grateful because of the material he left for us; this book is a source he opened almost 80 years ago.

Slideshow of the book(1):

“Covarrubias in Bali”
By Adriana Williams and Ye-Chee Chong
Editions Didier Millet
Singapore 2005

(1) If the site is blocked (I live in China) you can find the video with the URL address on Youtube:
or in my Youtube chanel:

No comments:

Post a Comment

If you are interested in using any text, image or video from this Blog, please contact the author writing your e-mail and information in comments. (comments are private)
Gustavo Thomas. Get yours at