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From Ethnographic to Contemporary: How an Artist Interview May Direct the Study and Conservation Treatment of a Balinese Cili Figure


The sub-disciplines of ethnographic conservation and the conservation of contemporary art share a common goal of incorporating intangible, or non-physical, meanings of the artwork into the preservation approach through collaboration with artists and living descendants. By adapting best practices in contemporary art conservation, namely an artist interview, the tangible and intangible properties of a Balinese cili figure with a known artist/maker are studied. In collaboration with the artist/maker, Ni Nyoman Kawiwati, various aspects of the cili figure are presented, including cultural context, materials identification, construction techniques, conservation treatment, storage, and display.

Following the artist interview, cross sections were prepared from the cili figure and compared with reference material, identifying the palm leaves of the cili figure as Borassus flabellifer. The artist/maker also provided a disassembled figure that clarifies construction techniques and internal organs, which are the most important components of the artwork, within the bottom of the cili that could not be fully imaged with X-radiography. The artist/maker describes the cultural meanings and functions of the figure and suggests a preference for renewal or replacement rather than preservation of the original object. A compromise in conservation approach is chosen, where the older figure is treated with input from the artist/maker and a new figure by the artist/maker is incorporated into the museum collection as part of her wish for renewal of the object.

Conservators should be mindful of how we perceive an object, for this will influence conservation decisions. The perception of the cili figure as a traditional object belonging to a generalized Balinese culture is challenged. As an argument against anonymity, the interview provides an individual's perspective, allowing for the artist to play an active role in the interpretation and preservation of her artwork. The distinction between an ethnographic or contemporary artwork should not be limiting when preserving an object with a known artist/maker; instead, a flexible conservation approach may be adopted, where methodologies from the two sub-disciplines can be interchangeable and combined.

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