The Maestro of Makassar

For the first time on this blog, I’m writing about a person I’m yet to meet. But his story is so remarkable and inspiring, it just had to be shared.

A few months ago, a dear friend was visiting Makassar, the capital of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Makassar has been a major trading port in South East Asia since the early 16th century. It was colonized first by the Portuguese (1500s – 1600s) and then by the Dutch, for the next 2 centuries.

My friend (who is familiar with my interest in indigenous art) surprised me with this beautiful painting from Makassar. The painting shows a local fishing boat called phinisi headed out to sea.

Zainal Beta painting, Makassar, Indonesia

‘What is so unique about this painting?’ you may ask. Well, the interesting fact here is that the artist has used clay (instead of paints) and a thin bamboo strip (instead of brushes) to create this rustic masterpiece.

The artist – Makassar based painter Zainal Beta. He is probably one of the few painters in the world (if not the only) who uses clay instead of traditional paints. In his hometown, Zainal is hailed as the inventor of this unique painting technique but he is yet to patent it.

Zainal Beta, Makassar, Indonesia

Zainal’s entry into the world of clay painting happened by a stroke of serendipity. When he was about 20 years old, Zainal was running to submit his entry to an art competition. Suddenly, the paper he was carrying fell into wet mud. When he picked it up, it was completely soiled.

Zainal was heartbroken at first. But then he began to notice shapes and forms on the mud stained paper. Inspired by this, he decided to experiment with using clay as a substitute for paint. Over the years, he continued to paint with clay and slowly built a reputation for himself, in and around Makassar.

Today, he carefully chooses clay soil from various parts of South Sulawesi to depict different colors. He mostly uses 4 colors – red, yellow, black and grey. Finding the right texture of clay and processing it, takes him anywhere between 3 to 6 months. A real labour of love!

His favourite scenes are from local life – boats, houses, people like fishermen and farmers. The left-handed Zainal is able to complete a simple piece (as in this video) in a matter of minutes but detailed ones with faces and people take him longer.

In this video, he is painting the ancestral home of the Torajan people (an ethnic group in South Sulawesi). His effortless style is testament to his sheer genius.

Here’s Zainal adding a personal message in Bahasa Indonesia to my precious gift.

Zainal Beta, Makassar, Indonesia

Zainal overcame strong parental opposition and financial challenges to pursue his passion. His work hanging in my living room is a constant reminder that despite all of life’s challenges, we must hold on to our dreams. There is just no other way to live life!

So if you ever happen to be in Makassar, stop by his studio in Fort Rotterdam. I promise you, you won’t be disappointed.

Read Zainal’s interview in the Dec’14 issue of SILKWINDS, the in-flight magazine of Silk Air (the regional subsidiary of Singapore Airlines) – A pioneer painter in Makassar

Fort Rotterdam, Makassar, Indonesia



Filed under Asia, Indonesia

2 responses to “The Maestro of Makassar

  1. So very inspiring …..loved the article.


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