“There are times when an artist can present something that can challenge the viewers and put them in a position to face certain things they would usually avoid.”
Co-Founder | Cata Odata
On being open-minded, gaining trust, and the importance of art.
Under lush canopies and swaying bamboo trees, an old three story structure stands idly still, sheltering paint on canvas and installations that surround a group of starry eyed visitors. The place is home to an endeavor – one that continues spirit of Bali’s fabled artistic heritage in today’s modern world.
It is, in essence, a hybrid space – a term that even its co-founder Ratna Odata struggles to define. “You can’t describe Cata Odata as just a gallery, a studio or a collective. I can honestly say that it’s too early to fully answer that question,” she argues with conviction.
Founded in 2014 from humble beginnings with her co-founder and friend Kenyut, Cata Odata has only grown in prominence in the arts community in Bali. Since then they have staged exhibitions for both local and international artists, encouraged interdisciplinary dialogue by facilitating open discussions with the public, held workshops and artist residencies, often while collaborating with local galleries and venues.
It is a place unique in its grassroots approach; fostering a tight-knit community of artists and creatives of all disciplines, who regularly come to search for new meaning and insight. That deep sense of community is a trait that Ratna highlights as a strength that reflects the Balinese way of life – something that she believes individual-driven creatives can learn something from.
Over the conversation, you can sense that this place is a true reflection of her values of openness and collaboration. Ratna shares her story on growing up in (and blossoming away from) a time of heightened prejudice during her childhood, the kinds of conversations that inspire her, and gives thoughtful perspective on the identity struggle for Indonesian contemporary art.
Enter, Ratna Odata
Ratna, tell us a little about your upbringing. Where did you grow up? Were the Arts always a part of your life?
I grew up in Kediri – a small town south of Surabaya and was born in a Chinese-Indonesian family. As a lot of people know, there was a lot of friction and prejudice back then between the Chinese and non-Chinese. My parents lived in hardship, and I clearly remember being told not to go out often or create a lot of attention – even to not make friends with non-Chinese Indonesians. It was, and still is difficult for me to deal with.
Despite this, not once did I feel like I was different. I learned that what you hear sometimes can be scarier than what reality actually is. When I was in junior high, I mingled with every one. All the fear that was in my mind was never real – on the contrary, I made friends with a diverse amount of people, and we were all open to each other.
If I didn’t experience those events and realize my identity, I wouldn’t be as open as I am today, and the idea of this place (Cata Odata) wouldn’t turn out the same way. I would have brought those prejudices with me. I never see things black and white.
Art started to play a role in my life in high school in Surabaya; the tension there was very challenging. It was the type of school that really focused on academic achievements and I realized it wasn’t the kind of life I wanted. There was very little exposure to art, however, it was the first time we were exposed to the internet and to all this expression! It made me realize there was a wide range of options out there!
Where we grew up in Kediri, they had a very fixed mentality. People thought there were only a few ways to make a living. If it’s bad, it’s bad, if it’s good, it’s good. Art reminds me that there is a middle ground.
“Art reminds me that there is a middle ground.”
What is the philosophy behind Cata Odata?
Openness. In my perspective, I didn’t want something that had a label, which is why I didn’t include any words such as “contemporary” or “art gallery”. Whatever name that we chose, it had to give people a sense of both comfort and mystery as well. “Cata” means heart, and “Odata”, which is my family name, means white.
The color white is the easiest pigment that can deliver and make shown the most other colors. To me, this “white heart” represents openness. It represents doing our best efforts and being transparent as well. Having my family name represents the hard-working values of my family – It’s a continuity of our values.
Describe the moment you decided to create Cata Odata.What were the events leading up to it?
It’s funny actually, I was thinking of having a place like this for quite some time and had an urgency to want to do it when I was in college in Singapore. I didn’t realize it would happen so quick. It was very unplanned.
I graduated from LaSalle in 2014 and was confused as what to do next. During holidays in college I would work as a set designer for theater, but after graduating, I realized I didn’t have my student pass to continue working. I didn’t think it through!
“It was a stroke of luck!”
Since I worked in set design and was a freelance, I thought I could work anywhere. It was in my mind to stay in Bali, because I already had friends here, like Kenyut (co-founder). The only thing I wanted was to find a place to live here. I didn’t think about the dream so much because it just wasn’t possible to achieve in a short amount of time.
One day, I found a large shabby building – a ghost house! There was a large sign saying “For Rent”. I definitely knew I couldn’t afford it, but for some reason I just grabbed my phone and dialed the number. The building manager picked up the phone, and the first question he asked was what my budget was. I was honest and blurted out a really low number, which was only enough for a kost (single room apartment). But there was nothing to lose! The day after, I ended up meeting the owner. He questioned who I was and what I wanted to do here. He liked the vision, and in the end, he gave it to me for a very, very reasonable price. It was a stroke of luck!
It was surreal, it was happening and I had a chance to realize my dream. But the amount of energy and time both Kenyut and I spent on this place was crazy! We didn’t have a lot of money and this house was old and needed a lot of care. But I had absolutely no plan in the beginning, and it was a lot of improvisation.
Along the way, I met people who had professional backgrounds in business and management who questioned me. When I told them I only had experience as a set designer in theatre with no business background, though it wasn’t blatant, I knew they thought I was crazy. I got the message, and it’s still a work in progress.
“But why is art important? I think at some point, art has to disturb someone’s peace. It can also calm those who have no peace of mind.”
What makes a space like Cata Odata different from a traditional museum or gallery? How important is it to have places like Cata Odata within society as a whole?
Commercial galleries are less “open”, and I think that’s something we have here as a hybrid space. You can’t describe Cata Odata as just a gallery, a studio or a collective. I can honestly say that it’s too early to fully answer that question.
But why is art important? I think at some point, art has to disturb someone’s peace. It can also calm those who have no peace of mind. It can make you see things you never knew before, or see things you already knew from a different perspective.
People can come and be inspired by the art, but there are times when an artist can present something that can challenge the viewers and put them in a position to face certain things they would usually avoid – it asks questions.
What we do here (at Cata Odata) isn’t always something that inspires people, it can disturb and challenge you and that’s why it’s important to have a space like this – to challenge ourselves.
What were some of the earlier challenges you faced when opening Cata Odata?
Trust. To give you context, I fell in love with art pretty late, I didn’t have any connections at all with the art community, and I didn’t have the chance to continue my further studies overseas. When you open a place like this, people from the art community questioned who I was and what my background was.
In Bali, I learnt that many artists had issues with the traditional gallery system. One of the artists who we collaborated with told us about his experience with a previous gallery; he felt like a slave, where he had to produce a certain amount every month. If he couldn’t reach it, they would come into his house without any consent and take any painting they wanted. That trust issue between us and the artist was the first challenge we had to overcome.
The trust had to be earned with our audience as well. Can we deliver with intention? And know why we want to deliver it? Gaining that trust from our artist collaborators and audience wasn’t as easy as we thought. That’s something we overcame with preparation, and making sure that we don’t break that trust we gained.
Has there been a particular project, workshop or exhibition that you personally enjoyed working on the most?
It’s very difficult to describe which one I enjoyed the most because I gained so many things from the different projects I had.
In general, I do enjoy it more when we can collaborate with a lot of people. It’s amazing because you feel like it’s not only about us in Cata Odata. I like it when I can engage with different communities and people. If there’s anything we can do in Cata Odata that allows more people to join not only as an audience but as participants, that’s something we can’t say no to. It’s a bigger challenge, of course, but I hope we can live up to that reputation.
How was running Cata Odata changed you over the years? What has become more important to you? And what has become less important to you?
My personal goals are less important to me now. I still have my values which has to reflect onto the things I do. But now, it can no longer just be about me – I don’t want to be selfish. Sure, there’s a good selfish, like working to achieve a higher goal later on that can be enjoyed by all, but I don’t want to mix in personal goals in terms of profit, and that’s a struggle. I prefer not to enjoy my pay if I still can’t give anything to those who have helped us.
Management has become more important over the years. I’m still struggling with it! Finding out ways to handle the things I postponed was challenging earlier on. Habits like scheduling have really helped, and even making long term strategies. We didn’t have that at all in the beginning so it’s more important now for me to write down our goals. We’re in our 4th year now, and I’m realizing that there’s no goofing around now! Having structure is important.
“It can no longer just be about me”
What important qualities do you look for in a team? Especially a team running a space like Cata Odata?
They must have a very wide perspective and have the passion to want to be challenged. They must think creatively as well. As much as I like hard work, I prefer those who can work smart, but of course we need a combination of both.
We’re not only in the business of visual arts, but we want to work with people with different backgrounds and disciplines so we want to be as open as possible.
It would be difficult to work with someone who sticks to one rhythm – and that could be as simple as someone who thinks fine art is better than kids’ art. I don’t like working with those kind of people. I believe in any kind of art form, craft or discipline.
I don’t want a team to be too timid. They must show respect towards anyone they meet because sometimes when you go to an art gallery, you might feel like you’re looked down upon from your lack of money or knowledge.
I don’t want Cata Odata to be like that. You have to treat whoever walks through the door with respect. Everyone with good intention has the right to appreciate art and access these facilities.
“Sometimes when you go to an art gallery, you might feel like you’re looked down upon from your lack of money or knowledge.”
When you think of the word successful, who comes into mind and why?
I’d have to say my parents. Of course success is different from one person to another, and we could name the usual people who are hugely successful. But if my parents didn’t believe in what I was doing, I wouldn’t be here right now. When I see the amount of dedication and sacrifice that they were willing to take just to make sure that we had better opportunities than them, that is what I call success.
Where do you usually go to for new ideas? What places, sights and sounds can stimulate your creativity?
The first time I found theater, I fell in love with it. It was a great vessel for inspiration. It was a place where there so much was happening with scripts, characters etc, and as a set designer I had to get inspiration from different places.
My background in theater allowed me to find inspiration from everywhere and everything around me. Everything has its own beauty, but the ideas behind most of the exhibitions and events I got to curate myself came from conversations I’ve had with people.
So it’s not always a “place” that these ideas come from, it’s from conversation – especially with those who have a completely different perspective from me. These people blur the lines, and make me question things – leaving me quiet and wondering what the hell that conversation was all about. In a way, I was disrupted, but I take that feeling and formulate it into an event! It’s a curatorial practice. People are my biggest inspiration.
“People are my biggest inspiration.”
What makes you happy and fulfilled outside the work that you do?
I don’t consider this as my job. It’s my life. Sometimes when you work for someone, you need an escape for recreation, but art offers me both worlds at the same time. Even if I go out, most of the time I end up at a gallery or some collective or creative space.
So it’s pretty much not too far away from what I’m doing here. I can’t draw any boundaries between work and play. But other than this, travelling makes me happy. I really feel happy visiting a place that I’ve never visited before.
What are the unique aspects about being in Bali that influence artists who live here or visit here?
What’s unique about Bali is that no matter what turmoil or change happens, the whole island continues to live with the same values and traditions that they had centuries ago. That’s not something you see too often with globalization now. It’s amazing when you see it from the perspective of the Balinese. I’m not Balinese, but just imagine that; with modernization, you have to compete with the world but at the same time, you have to make sure the aspects of your traditions are managed well.
I have huge respect for the Balinese for the amount of dedication they put on a daily basis. This comes through in the art that they do. The challenge is that when we talk about art, we see it a lot from a European art perspective, and that’s very different from what we have in Bali.
Here, the traditional artists have collective goals. Where in Europe, it’s all about your personal views and ideals. Individualism is valued more there. But in Bali, especially in traditional art forms, they still admire the value of having a collective goal.
An example are the traditional paintings; it might look boring or the same from a European when you have the whole village painting the same way. But think about it, you’re not alone in that sense, and we have to appreciate it from that perspective. Being in a collective can be a challenge for some.
People visiting Bali can really find value in being in a collective, and admire quality of the work that the Balinese have in their creative pursuits as well.
What unique contribution do you think Indonesian contemporary artists can specifically bring to the world right now, and for the future?
The identity of a country such as Indonesia is very complex. How can you be a Javanese and a Papuan and still be Indonesian, when those are two entirely different cultures? As a country, we’ve only been around since 1945. Imagine being alive in 1945 and waking up one day saying “Today I can become an Indonesian.”
It’s hard to comprehend, but that’s the beauty of being Indonesian. We still have a lot of homework, and before we can go out and tell people who we are, we have to find out first for ourselves.
Imagine living with a lot of people from different backgrounds – we’re not even talking about different islands yet. You can’t even map out an entire region that has one single practice – at times, literally every village within the same region has a different practice. Indonesia isn’t a country that is being built under one certain condition, rather a country that is being built by many people in many conditions who have come together and called themselves Indonesian! It’s a huge collective of cultural heritage.
Sure, we have a lot of great contemporary artists who have exhibited worldwide, but we’re still not in the best shape to showcase our contemporary art. If you see where they came from, they pretty much came from Jogja, Bandung, Jakarta and Bali but it’s a pity that we can only offer that much in comparison to the heritage we have.
As Indonesians in creative practices, we’re constantly challenged by so many new ideas that come at the same time. Unfortunately, those new ideas don’t always come from the country itself. Many things are adopted from somewhere else and because we aren’t one of the main actors on the global scene, we are pretty much a country that stands in the background and follows, especially on the contemporary scene.
In my personal view, it’s something I think I can fully answer better in 10 years, given my experience. But I feel like many times we are forcefully being uprooted from our seeds. A lot of what we’re doing right now seems like it has little connection to what we made before.
“I feel like many times we are forcefully being uprooted from our seeds. A lot of what we’re doing right now seems like it has little connection to what we made before.”
If you see art history in Europe; the art movements, although different in nature, always had some kind of connection and reaction to it’s previous one. If you trace back from the renaissance time all the way to contemporary art, you can draw a line and see the connection between one another.
But in Indonesia, all these new ideas are being adopted from outside places because we feel like we have to catch up with the world in competition. Most of the time we see ourselves (Indonesian culture) as “worn out”, and if we feel that if we want to present ourselves as best as we can, we have to do it to suit their perspectives.
It’s a pity that we in Indonesia draw lines with traditional and contemporary in that they have no connection at all. We keep challenging ourselves with new ideas just for the sake of it; finding ones that are not a true reflection of ourselves. I think we need to reset in a way.
In Indonesia, there are still many artists that still have their own supernatural beliefs. That’s something you don’t often find in many other places. It’s often that you meet someone who is well educated, but you have to have to listen to and take in something from them that seems quite illogical. That’s the kind of diversity and mysticism we can bring to the world. Coming from a country with so many different cultural aspects that we can celebrate – it’s something we can enjoy from the contemporary scene.
Do you have any specific advice for Indonesians who want to grow their creative potential but probably don’t have the support from their community around them?
Know who you are. Not in the perspective of others, but you in relation to yourself. Just make sure that this is something that you want to do for the rest of your life. If you can say yes to that while being dedicated, open and respectful, then I think you’re set.
All time favorite artist?
I don’t have one! But I can give you my least favorite, Damien Hirst. Don’t ask me why.
One piece of advice you would give to your 20-year-old self ?
Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?
Running a better version of Cata Odata!
If you would like to get in contact with Ratna, you can email her at: