Artivist, observes and reports on developments in the Bali and Indonesian art scenes
In 1919, German psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn (1886-1933) was assigned by the Heidelberg University's psychiatric hospital to an unconventional task: to expand the hospital’s collection of art created by people who were mentally ill.
When he left two years later, the collection had grown to more than 5000 pieces.
The following year, in 1923, Prinzhorn published his first book, Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill), which was destined to become highly influential.
Richly illustrated with wonderful yet unorthodox works of art, the book ignited the fascination of a few French avant-garde artists, while the art became the catalyst for the Art Brut Movement founded in 1948.
Nearly a century after Prinzhorn’s book was published, Art Brut, or what became known in the 1970s as Outsider Art, has taken the art world by storm.
Embraced enthusiastically by the contemporary art world, a succession of art fairs, biographies, retrospectives and collections have sprung up in Europe and North America in the past decade.
Now, this exciting genre is beginning to receive attention here in Indonesia.
The origins of Art Brut – or works that were in their raw state, unmarred by cultural and artistic influences – may be traced to Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985), who understood how the artwork of psychiatric patients fulfilled certain Surrealist ideals in that they seemed to flow directly from the subconscious mind.
Aware of the stigma attached to "insane" or "psychotic art", Dubuffet required a more dignified term in order for the refined cultural circles of the time to accept a collection of works by so-called lunatics. Along with Surrealist artist André Breton and critic Michel Tapié, he wrote the Art Brut Manifesto in 1947.
Outsider Art, coined in 1972 as a recasting of Dubuffet’s term into the English language, is the label that has stuck ever since.
While the definition of this style has been a constant source of debate, it has been generally accepted that its creators were not only untrained, but often had little concept of an art gallery or even any forms of art other than their own. The art had no relation to contemporary artistic developments, and were the innovative and powerful expressions of a variety of individuals who existed outside recognized culture and society.
The profile of an Outsider Artist often includes a traumatic childhood, a history of institutionalization (orphanage, asylum, prison), a stunted education and subsistence jobs, yet at its core is a ceaseless drive to create art. The profile is completed by a discovery story: the tale of an individual with cultural connections who brings the outsider into the art world.
Imam Sucahyo’s life has been a series of ongoing struggles that have inspired his prolific creativity. A self-taught artist born in 1978 in Tuban, East Java, Imam’s first encounter with the art world was through a neighbour who was a painter. His imagination was sparked at a young age; then at elementary school, he saw images in a library book of paintings by the Indonesian expressionist master, Affandi.
Affandi’s unrestrained freedom would become a potent stimulant for Imam to explore his own eccentric painting style. Intuitively, he followed his path into making art while he was rejected by the local art community that favored only conventional styles. During adolescence, with no interest in attending school and influenced by his peers, Imam started to experiment with drugs and alcohol. His years of abuse led to psychosis, hallucinations and paranoia. Art became Imam’s sanctuary to calm his troubled mind.
In his early 20s, confronted with poverty and other issues, Imam endured sudden family tragedies. In order to cope with his suffering and loss, he often avoided social interaction, which eventually impaired his ability to communicate verbally. Picking up odd jobs here and there in different cities helped sustain his life, all the while art remained his foundation, a tool of reconciliation, his visual diary for recording every event of his journey, both good and bad. Without it, Imam may have become forever lost in his self-imposed exile. One of his favorite pastimes was listening to local folklore, stories that would then merge with his own experience and emerge in his art.
"Art is the most loving space, accepting of all my flaws. It accommodates my feelings wholeheartedly, and never demands or requires me to repay that which has been given to me,” Imam said. “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 is my pal who securely guides me through every day."
Contemporary artist Djunaidi Kenyut, who grew up on the streets of Surabaya, is a long-time friend of Imam’s and the co-founder of the Cata Odata Art House in Ubud, Bali. Djunaidi has been a pillar of support during Imam’s artistic journey. Three years ago, Djunaidi, along with his partner, took on the responsibility of managing Imam and introducing his work to the international art world.
The phenomenal rise of social media portals Facebook and Instagram have, within a few years, enabled a new virtual art world to thrive outside of the highly competitive traditional world of galleries, museums, dealers and print media. This opened the door to many artists, especially here in Indonesia, where art infrastructure is lacking and many face difficulties entering the conventional gallery system, along with finding other opportunities to exhibit their work.
Through Facebook, Imam’s art has gained attention from international audiences of Outsider Art, attracting buyers both at home and from France and Australia. In 2016, his artwork were exhibited in Espace Eqart in Marciac, the Outsider Art Fair in Paris, and the Outsider Art Biennale Fair at Museum Ephémères in Rives, France. Most recently, Japan's Borderless Art Museum NO-MA visited Cata Odata Art House to view Imam’s work.
Imam’s memories and ideas come alive in Jagat Mawut (Ravaged World), a collection of over 70 paintings, installations and sculptures featured in his first solo exhibition. Imam’s thrilling and potent art is testament to the wonders and magnificence of creativity, while highlighting the resilience of the human spirit.
Launched on Oct. 3 at the Cata Odata Art House, this excellent show continues through Nov. 4. (kes)
Art exhibit: Jagat Mawut (Ravaged World) by Imam Sucahyo
Dates: Oct. 3-Nov. 4, 2017
Open: Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
Venue: Cata Odata Art House (opposite Pura Dalem Temple), Jl. Raya Penestanan Klod, Ubud, Bali
Contact: +6281212126096, https://www.facebook.com/cata.odata
Richard Horstman, a cultural observer with over 25 years’ experience in Indonesia, has supported the Bali and Indonesian art scenes for more than nine years as a journalist, writer, art tourism presenter and advisor at Cata Odata Art Space in Ubud. A bridge between the art world and the public, he has been published in The Jakarta Post and various other newspapers.
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