Petter Hegre:
The Forbidden Nudes

by Clifford Thurlow

Fifty years ago DH Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover was banned as being "too explicit" in the High Court in London. The ruling was lifted in the more tolerant sixties. When the book was finally released the first run of 200,000 copies sold out in a day.

Forbidden fruit always tastes sweet. The moment censors prohibit a work of art it acquires cult status and the public want to see for themselves what all the fuss is about.

The battle has been fought many times and was fought again in Indonesia in April when Playboy went on sale for the first time. The Islamic Defenders Front described the magazine as an 'icon of pornography,' and set out to remove copies from circulation even though much promotional material in Indonesia is far more provocative and the local version of Playboy had no nude shots.

Pornography is in the mind. It is not easy to explain exactly what the word means. Sexually explicit books by men are porn. Sex books by women are erotic. Lady Chatterley's Lover was too explicit for the reserved English of the fifties and a best seller in the swinging sixties.

What rang the alarm bells for the Islamic Defenders was the suggestion of pornography, the concept, the notion that nudity is sinful and people need to be protected from it. The issue has been discussed across the Indonesian archipelago with special resonance in Bali, an island populated by Hindus in a sea of Islam. In Java, Sumatra and the string of neighbouring islands, the 200 million inhabitants represent the world's largest Muslim population. It is a rapidly growing population and the large number of immigrants arriving in Bali have created new communities out of step with the island's traditional way of life.

The Balinese are famously open-mined. They welcomed the waves of young western travellers who began to arrive in the swinging sixties and areas such as Kuta Beach turned into the Shangri-la of the hippy lifestyle. Surfing, skinny dipping, staying up all night to watch the sunrise, innocent pleasures laced with locally grown magic mushrooms and a boom for the Balinese economy.

Balinese temples are decorated outside with voluptuous goddesses and inside naïf tapestries and thankas of Hindu gods illustrate the lives of the saints. The buildings are colourful, vibrant places with the sound of ringing gongs and the heady smell of sandalwood incense.

The Muslims populating the neighbouring islands of Indonesia tend to be more austere in their worship. Mosques are unadorned and the human image is never portrayed. Muslims have strict dress codes and behaviour, especially for women.

The conflict on the world stage between fundamentalist Muslims and western culture finally reached Bali on 12 October 2002 when 202 people died in two bombs, one planted in a vehicle outside the Sari Club, the other in Paddy's Irish Bar. The militant group Jemaah Islamiah, which is said to have links to Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda, claimed responsibility. The group had previously bombed Christian churches across Indonesia. Only now, four years later, are the tourists beginning to return to Bali.

The Indonesian government is discussing legislation that will restrict artistic expression involving the human form, but the Balinese people and the many artists and photographers who work in and visit the island are resisting any laws that will stifle creative freedom and censure the liberal outlook of the island's people.

THE NEW NUDE chief photographer Petter Hegre has journeyed twice to the inland since that terrible night in the autumn of 2002 and his images shown here present the human form and the island of Bali as icons of nature at their very best.

The renowned Indonesian photographer Rama Surya continues to explore his own photographic vision and his bold black and white nude exhibition entitled Kemurnian at Richard Meyer Culture in Kerobokan in April attracted record numbers of visitors.

It should be a warning to the Indonesian legislators. If the Islamic Defenders Front get their way and have Playboy banned, and if the galleries of Bali are closed down by Muslim porn police, nudity will go underground and produce more not less interest. Those law makers in Jakarta should stretch out on the sofa with a copy of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and take it easy.

Clifford Thurlow
Clifford Thurlow is a screenwriter, journalist, and the former correspondent for The Observer in Athens. He has written more than a dozen books. Most recently he co-authored with Captain James Ashcroft the explosive Making A Killing: The Story of a Hired Gun in Iraq. Clifford is based in London and Spain.