Whitehot Magazine

Shaman in the House! Symbols of Healing and Transformation in The Art of Imam Sucahyo at Galerie Robert Poulin

Imam Sucahyo, He-Man, 2015, mixed media on paper, 15.5 x 11 in.

By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, September 2020 

Imam Sucahyo
Galerie Robert Poulin, Montreal

“Art is the most loving place, accepting of all my flaws. It accommodates my feelings wholeheartedly, and never demands or requests me to repay that which has been given to me, Devotion grows so we may complete each other and I can merge as one with my art. My work is a learning place and a mirror so that my life is more meaningful. My art… securely guides me through every day.”

-- Imam Sucahyo [1] 

“Salvation is a long road that leads through many gates. These gates are symbols. Each new gate is at first invisible; indeed it seems at first that it must be created, for it exists only if one has dug up the spring’s root, the symbol.”

-- Carl Gustav Jung [2] 

That art can possess innate healing properties is proven in the work of this Indonesian Outsider artist. His chimerical work is positively apotraic. Heavily influenced by local folklore and personal life narratives, it integrates myriad cognate symbols that restlessly seethe within and emerge from beneath his sensuous surfaces like a thicket of aromatic moonflowers. 

Sucahyo draws as though in the grip of a seizure, using ballpoint pen, wooden pencil and felt-tip pen to his advantage on recycled papers, sedimented with layers of delineated active symbols that signify healing properties. His routine is a dedicated one. He draws every day and his practice is grounded in this ethic of making.

Astri Wright has written:

“Some contemporary artists in Indonesia, specifically in Central Java, consider making and understanding art a part of their spiritual practices. Some strive to know the iconography of monuments of the past, not as archaeologists, but in order to understand the mystical messages embodied there. At the same time many of these artists are developing a personal, modem visual language of their own. Their spiritual orientation causes them to see mythology and monuments as living texts relevant to the choices contemporary Indonesians make in their daily lives. These spiritual views in turn influence the artists' perception of the creative process and the self in relation to this process.” [3]

Sucahyo’s is a spiritual practice and one related to the “mystically inclined” Javanese painter Wright discusses. His work integrates sundry aspects of Javanese mysticism in its evocation of a chimerical terrestrial paradise, central to which is the notion of kebatinan, which connotes various beliefs relating to spiritual authority and the twilight world of perception.  

In Indonesia, kebatinan is construed as being synonymous with various mystical endeavours. It articulates with poetic roundedness the spiritual approach to life in the Surakarta and Yokyakarta sultanates, I mean, the Javanese homeland. Etymologically, the term derives from the Arabic bāṭin, meaning the inner or internal, particularly the mental, spiritual, occult and esoteric. 

As a spiritual practice, kebatinan represents a way to grow and purify one’s inner being throughout the life cycle and to heighten one’s intuition as a way towards achieving truth and radical adequation in the midst of life. It is a fusion of Hindu-Buddhist, Islamic, as well as sundry indigenous animist beliefs and practices. Kebatinan is no doctrinaire life philosophy of edict and injunction but embodies the ideal of syncretism in the sense that it marries and merges in an unfettered whole various elements from wildly different religions or cultures. From a foreign perspective, they may appear self-contradictory, but they are in fact reconciled within the frame work of a holistic perspective.

Imam Sucahyo, Seneb, 2015, mixed media on paper, 13.5 x 11.5 in.

Sucahyo envisions life itself as an epic mystical journey of ongoing transformation, from the outer limits to the inner self. Rather than being a helpless witness to his own damnation, as it were, Sucahyo has the wherewithal to instil and safeguard spiritual progress as he pursues a mystical journey that consists in ethical living, and the tropes and stages of this journey are implicit in his intricate and life-affirming symbology. 

According to the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, the symbol in art is a conduit to the psyche’s healing energies. Symbols wed us to nature in ways that breathe new life into the myths structuring consciousness. [4] Sucahyo’s art is completely porous with openings that invite viewers inside his sinuous fantasias. Symbols pop out of his drawn lines with casual ubiquity. Serpents, disembodied optics, curious human figures in the midst of transformation or metempsychosis -- all these and more are integrated in highly seductive and fluid chromatic fields.

An empath of no narrow persuasion, Sucahyo knows that connectedness rules all and this knowledge helps heal us in the lifeworld. He operates under the sign of the Greek god of healing and the medicinal arts, Asclepius. This is the very fundament of his repletely realised personal cosmogony.

Consider his Mimpi ke Night Klub in which a bifurcated owl-like creature shares space with open jaws, serrated teeth, demonic faces, rogue eyeballs and calligraphic finials, all festooned in garish and enlivening fashion with a very tumultuous palette. The intricacy of forms and the inviting riot of colours welcome the viewer inside the painting. This work and others remind me of Max Walter Svanberg (1912—1994), the Swedish surrealist painter. But now without the latter’s fixation on female bodies – Sucahyo’s protagonists are mostly male and often surrogates for himself, thus, effectively self-portraits in process – but they share a nostalgic fondness for elements of fauna, flora and dark whimsy. And there is also a kindred fascination with the erotic, which is more pronounced in Svanberg, but also resonates on a deep level in Sucahyo’s work.

In his theory of aesthetics, Carl Jung dilates on symbols expressed in geometric forms, humans, semi-humans, gods and goddesses, animals and plants. [5] Sucahyo’s work is a veritable forest of such symbols, all co-existing in one wider field. Their symbolic content rises from the unconscious to consciousness through the vehicle of archetypes that possess an irredeemable, primordial, even atavistic quality, Sucahyo touches upon the universality of the symbolical pattern of the 'mandala, ' the ‘bridge’ and so forth and shows how significant such symbols can be in tracing the journey of 'individuation' and reconciling consciousness and unconscious content. So Sucahyo is not interested in fostering mute signs as such. He is more a shaman of the symbolic who is capable of such reconciliation and the archetypal response from his own unconscious. Signs have fixed meanings while symbols are very fluid and promiscuous, pointing to latent psychological content and the hegemony of the unconscious.

Imam Sucahyo, Ora Kuat Kok Uteku, 2015, mixed media on paper, 13.5 x 11.5 in.

In early childhood, Imam began to show an aptitude for and obsession with making art. He began constructing dolls and drawing when he was in elementary school in Tuban, East Java. Fortuitously, he lived near senior painter, Sareh Karsadi, who he would befriend and who was, in an important sense, an early mentor. He would spend endless hours watching the senior artist at work, privy to his process. He was also deeply influenced by two of Indonesia’s acknowledged painters of consequence, Raden Saleh and Affandi. While attending elementary school, he assimilated many images of paintings by Affandi in a library book. They left a lasting impression on the young artist. 

Sucahyo came to emulate Affandi as an artist who embraced an overwhelmingly reflective freedom and a resistance to extant styles and taxonomies. He would be a model for his own inner journey. During adolescence, he began experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and art subsequently became his go-to refuge and his deliverance. 

“These [drawings] are the results of my keluyuran [wandering aimlessly]. Usually, upon returning home from keluyuran, I sit and start painting,” he said. [6] Keluyuran, those peripatetic wanderings, allowed him to meet other artists and lay people, infusing his art with a broad array of figural possibles.  It also deepened his natural inclination towards an empathic understanding of the Other and the lifeworld as sanctuary.

Interconnectedness is a mantra heard everywhere inside this artist’s work, wherein everything is connected and in chiasmic dialogue with everything else. The work entitled Urip Nandur Apik Mati Mesem (Sowing Good Deeds in Life Leads to a Peaceful Death) attests to the artist’s empathic imperative. The anthropomorphic figures (with transparent abdomens housing internal organs), the flora and fauna all constitute a teaching story with a genuinely mythopoetic dimension in which intrapsychic truths are translated into compelling narrative fictions. The inclusion of a fragmented litany of wise words in Javanese adds a linguistic edge and a sort of blessing for the inward journey and the outward urge. Empathy is this artist’s watchword. 

Imam Sucahyo, An Rindu Kita Untuk Kita, 2015, mixed media on paper, 13.5 x 11.5 in.

His is an arresting, even psychedelic, palette, and the colours always seem intricately dovetailed within a larger environment festooned like an undulating string of figures, flowers and dense foliage and suspended in a curve between any two points. If his work is highly intricate and sinuous, it is also highly charged. The flowing passages of scalloped forms lend a deeply rhythmic cast to the proceedings.  

Indeed, Surcayho possesses a daunting ability to stitch complementary colour terms together as though made of whole cloth  and a wealth of minuscule details into gorgeous, albeit chaotic shapes and patterns, which some commentators have argued have a decidedly Batik-esque appearance. But appearances can be deceiving.

He has said: “My works are the results of my dialogue with myself. Their messages are for me and those messages are not about how to achieve happiness in this life, but about how to learn to abate life’s disappointment.” [7] His interior dialogues are like mirrored palimpsests: the iridescent scaffolding the work rests upon.

There is no doubt that each work by this artist is the expression of an ecstatic state of creative ipseity. Sucahyo makes work rife with living symbols that promise self-knowledge, reparation and even, perhaps, transcendence, Ladies and gentlemen, get up on your feet and make some noise because shaman Imam Sucahyo is in the house!  WM


1, Cited in Richard Horstman, “Imam Sucahyo’s Electrifying Outsider Art” in Bali Art Reviews. See  https://lifeasartasia.art/2017/12/24/imam-sucahyos-electrifying-outsider-art/

2. Carl Jung, Red Book, The Way of the Cross (New York: Norton, 2009), pages 310-311

3. Astri Wright, “Javanese Mysticism and Art: A Case of Iconography and Healing” Indonesia No. 52 (Oct., 1991), pp. 85-104 Published by: Cornell University Press; Southeast Asia Program Publications at Cornell University DOI: 10.2307/3351156 https://www.jstor.org/stable/3351156

4. See Carl G. Jung, Man and his Symbols (New York:Doubleday, 1964).

5. See Louis Lagana, Jungian Aesthetics – A Reconsideration” International Congress of Aesthetics 2007 at https://www.academia.edu/213895/Jungian_Aesthetics_A_Reconsideration

6. I Wayan Juniarta, “The esthetically chaotic world of Imam Sucahyo” in The Jakarta Post (October 19, 2017).

7. Ibid.


James D. Campbell

James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.

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