An Italian Artist’s Take On the Colors of Bali
 Sylviana Hamdani | September 23, 2011

A moth dances and hops around a flickering neon light in an otherwise dark room. Hidden to one side is a house gecko, spying its prey, waiting patiently to make its move. 

The scene is part of a video created by Italian artist Federico Tomasi, called “Chapter 13,” which is now on display along with a number of his paintings at the prestigious 54th Venice Biennale.

Tomasi is one of four Indonesia-based Italian artists whose works are on display in the international exhibition. 

At the Biennale’s Italian Pavilion, a giant pyramid of LCD screens presents Tomasi’s video along with the video-art of more than 200 Italian artists based in 89 countries around the world. 

“The concept is to expand the boundaries of the Italian Pavilion beyond the national borders,” said Giovanna Jatropelli, director of the Italian Institute of Culture in Jakarta. “Therefore, the pavilion is a symbol of the 89 Italian Institutes [of Culture] all over the world.” 

Tomasi, along with Matteo Basile, Filippo Sciascia and Mondo, were selected by a special commission led by Vittorio Sgarbini, director of the Biennale’s Italian Pavilion, to represent the best of Italian art in Indonesia. 

“The video roughly represents my thinking,’’ Tomasi said. “At one time I had an obsession with neon lights, like an insect that is attracted to the light.’’ 

Shot in Bali in 2010, the video was part of an installation project that Tomasi created for an exhibition at the Gaya Art Space in Ubud. 

“It also shows our quest for understanding, like ‘Why are we here?’ ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ ‘What’s the point of it all?’ It’s very spiritual in one way,” he said. 

Tomasi was born in Stockholm in 1974 to an Italian father and a Swedish mother. The family moved to Italy when Tomasi was 13 years old. 

In 1989, Tomasi followed in the footsteps of his father, who was also an artist, and began his studies at the Institute of Art in Riccione, Italy. After graduating in 1994, he joined the couture house Lorenzo Riva in Milan. 

“Italy is mainly recognized for fashion,” he said. “So I thought there were probably a lot of opportunities for me in that field. But I soon realized that it wasn’t my path.” 

Tomasi resigned from Lorenzo Riva in 1996 and did odd jobs for a while. But in 1997, a visit to Indonesia changed his life forever. 

Tomasi had gone to Singapore to see his father, who had settled there for business, and during the trip had decided to tour other parts of Southeast Asia, including Bali. 

“I don’t know what really moved me,” he said. “But when I came back from that trip I suddenly discovered that I had a lot of emotions to express and the only tools that I had were my brush and my paints.”

Tomasi started painting with oil on canvas. But the process frustrated him. 

“I got bored,” he said. “The paintings took so long to dry. In the meantime, my mind was kind of evolving all the time. So I kept changing [the paintings] and covering them with many different colors.’’ 

A visit to New York in 2001 opened Tomasi’s mind to new methods of painting. 

“New York was a cultural shock for me,” he said. “The city has a lot of art galleries. Looking around, I realized that there are many, many different techniques to painting.” 

A work by Jackson Pollock, the influential American painter known for his role in the Abstract Expressionist movement, particularly fascinated Tomasi. 

“I fell in love with the ‘action painting’ [technique],” he said. “There’s so much freedom of expression in the method.” 

Tomasi became mesmerized by Pollock’s technique, which involved pouring, dripping and throwing paint at large canvases on the floor.

Back in Singapore, Tomasi changed his whole approach. Instead of painting on an easel, he put his canvas on the floor. 

“I discovered a whole new point of view,” he said. “I could see the richness of the colors and their rhythms. Sometimes I just threw the paints at the canvas and saw the colors moving by themselves. They flowed and melted together creating a dialogue with my canvas.” 

Now Tomasi uses enamel paints. He likes how fast they dry and that he never really knows what they’ll look like in the end. “My paintings have to surprise me,” he said. 

In 2001, the artist decided to set up his workshop in Seminyak, Bali. He described the sense of freedom he feels there — “You have to be free to paint,” he said — and cited the Balinese people as a source of inspiration. 

“I love to paint people,” he said. “I want to put their emotions and expressions in my paintings. 

“When you see [the Balinese people’s] faces, you can see the pride in their eyes and smiles, even though in this materialistic world, they don’t really have anything.” 

For Tomasi, the Balinese approach was a refreshing departure from the materialistic, status-oriented mind-set of the culture he had come from. Back home, he said, people judge you for what kind of car you drive or who your father is, but the Balinese don’t care about any of that. 

Now, when Tomasi is inspired, he isolates himself for days in his Seminyak studio. 

“It’s like falling in love with somebody,” he said. “You want to stay and stick with it forever.” 

The studio is within walking distance of a beach where he loves to surf in the morning. There’s also a rice field out the back that he likes to look at it while he works. 

Some of Tomasi’s paintings are now on display at the Kendra Gallery and the BIASA ArtSpace, both in Seminyak, as well as the East West Gallery in Milan. 

So, what does the future hold for Tomasi? Will he stay in Bali forever and continue to paint? “Well, I don’t know yet,” he said with a smile. “Like my paintings, I hope life flows and surprises me.”

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