Suluk in the Sunken Glory
By: Kiki Rizky Soetisna Putri
When Bung Shahrul (as I called him) asked me to write an introduction to his solo exhibition, to be honest, I was immediately interested. Shahrul, a very kind, like-minded friend, how could I refuse? Our initial conversation started with my question regarding the titles of his works, which are quite familiar to my ears. Titles such as Guarding Gunung Telawas (2020), Meurah & the Elephant (2020), The Wedding of Puteri Betung (2020) provoked thousands of questions in my mind.
Shahrul then answered my question by expressing his longing for the beautiful myths of Pasai Samudera. He considers Pasai Samudera so influencing in his life and how the 17th century Malay kingdoms formed the Malaysian culture around him today and the Indonesian culture in general, including me as a person who lives far away on the island of Java. It was fascinating that it became the reason why he chose me to respond to his works and ideas to become the introductory text for his solo exhibition, titled Looping Through the Sunken Glory (2020), since he believes that we have a similar collective memory towards it.
My interest then led me to a book entitled The Making of Indonesian Islam (2011) by Michael Laffan, an Indonesianist from Princeton University. In that book, I found a term that perfectly corresponds with what Shahrul was doing through his art, which is suluk.(1) According to Laffan, suluk is a word that means to take a spiritual path to Allah and relates to Sunan Bonang's poetic teaching method in introducing Islam to Java. Somehow this term resonates so much with Bung Shahrul's methodologies and practices as he always connotates his art-making as a journey. He is living a journey as he is in a long-distance relationship with his wife and mother—also, the journey to find and understand the meaning of self. This physical yet spiritual meaning of journey will manifest in his works that contains every bit of his memory.
This introductory will then look at the map of Shahrul's journey to a broad self-meaning through his art. In this case, I have to retain and try to engage in Shahrul's search into that beautiful memory. I will attempt to correspond to the cool concepts and ideas that already exist in Shahrul's work, so let's start the journey, shall we?
 Sunan (Sir) Bonang is one of nine wali (wali sanga) related to Islamization in Java. Wali itself, is a term originated from Arabic, which implies closeness to God. Regarding Laffan, Wali Sanga is inseparable from the discussion about Islam's history in Indonesia. The nine Wali are, Maulana Malik Ibrahim, Sunan Ampel, Sunan Giri, Sunan Bonang, Sunan Drajat, Sunan Kudus, Sunan Kalijaga, Sunan Murian, and Sunan Gunung Jati. Like Sunan Bonang's particular teaching method called Suluk, other walis also introduce Islam with a flexible yet tentative and syncretic approach.
II. First Meeting Point: Contextual Juncture
At the first meeting point in his journey of suluk, he will invite us to witness the glory of 17th century Aceh, which later became known as the land of Aceh Dar al-Salam, which they called the Porch of Mecca because of its majesty and splendor. According to Laffan, modern historiography often presents Aceh as a center of power and knowledge, which is considered commensurate with the Ottoman Empire.
I will begin to bring Pasai Samudera as the great myth that it is manifested in many of the syair (syi'r in Arabic) in Malay tradition that has so much fascinated Shahrul. Hamzah al-Fansuri, like Wali Sanga in Java, was believed to use syair as a unique method at that time. It is well known that in Malay culture, myth is manifested into syair that transgresses through generations. Fansuri's syair echoes the maritime world of the Malays. God, he describes it as a vast ocean that was sailed by ships to the islands of heaven. After his passing, many pilgrims carved their headstone with the specific mention of "Fansuri" rather than the more general designation "Jawi". Transliteration appears in modern form through three Malay sagas: Hikayat Amir Hamzah, Hikayat Inderaputra, and Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain. In 2014, Shahrul specifically highlighted Hikayat Inderaputra in his series of drawings. This concept is manifested in specific figures and mountains. These representations then reappear over and over again in 2014 up until the series in this solo exhibition.
From another perspective, Myth is a way to explain the unexplainable; it is a phenomenon of speech, as Barthes said.(2) It is shared between tribes, cultural members, and families. Unlike Barthes, Shahrul believes that myth is a memory phenomenon; language appears to be the medium itself. It is resembled in lines, the black and white colors, the objects he presents, and the artistic medium he chooses in his context. He was composing his 'artistic vocabularies' and coding a new way to share the virtue of "Negeri Atas Angin". Shahrul also believes that myth is a shared memory. According to Jung, these memories are embedded in what he calls the collective unconsciousness. (3) This memory includes our experiences as a species. These ancient memories influence our entire experience and behavior, including how we perceive the world and its surroundings. It is reflected creatively in all artworks that have been created by artists in our history of humankind.
If we go back to Shahrul's previous works from 2014 up until 2019, he turns the myth into a contemporary perspective. See how the gesture of the figures he has created, including the object he attaches to them. He continually manages his subject matter until his present work. You may find it different since he presents himself as the main character in his latest works, but how he conjectures his subject matter is always the same. You will find Shahrul with his distinct contemporary look reading a book in front of Gunung Telawah, or appearing between two hippos
 Jawi is later known as Malays.
 There's an interesting fact about striking, contrasting, and vivid colors. In his book Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (1934), Jung wrote that he knew from experience that vivid colors seem to attract the unconscious. And I think this also works with black and white as we do not mention those as colors.
with buzzing application windows in the background. In another work, he is riding an automata horse in some surrealistic landscape. He brings an ark that turns into a cloth hanger in others. Those objects perceive his private memory and reality that he intentionally inserts into our collective consciousness.
According to Harman, objects are never making full contact with each other any more than they do with the human mind. The idea is,
"...that objects – whether real, fictional, natural, artificial, human, or non-human – are mutually autonomous and enter into relation only in special cases that need to be explained rather than assumed. The technical way of making this point is to say that all objects are mutually 'withdrawn,' a term that is taken from Heidegger (1889–1976). Against the assumptions of common sense, objects cannot make direct contact with each other, but require a third term or mediator for such contact to occur." (4)
Shahrul's subject matter became his idiolect and is summed up in this solo exhibition. He put his contextual juncture in between myth and reality, between private memory and collective consciousness. He became a hero in his own narrative.
III. Second Meeting Point: Medium Turn
In the second part of the journey, we will explore Bung Shahrul's intention in his artistic medium. Shall we retrogress to his previous work of between the years 2014 and 2019. Shahrul begins his artistic exploration in the medium of drawing. Some of his works expanding from drawing's natural tendencies into a broader sense of mark-making. In this sense, he no longer burdened his capacity into traditional art-making; instead, he uses drawing as a starting point. He begins to explore mixed media and put found objects into his works. Those objects appear as a subsidiary and became signifiers to his context. In 2019, he radically but also creatively explores iodine, graphite, and sulfur in his drawings.
This broadness of exploration is brought into his recent works. He begins to shift his artistic medium from drawing to mixed media to new media. This shifting marks his artistic journey and confirmed that mediums are vocabularies to share his vision with us. Shahrul consciously uses a single-channel video to represent the life he is living now. The moment pandemic COVID-19 struck and made us expand our daily activity into the virtual realm.
This great shifting into the digital and virtual realm not necessarily dematerialized his art. According to Junge, that quote by Adamson in Art in the Making (2016), the digital is not immaterial.(5) Her notion was that the computer tools mark a significant departure from the older analog process, above all concerning distribution. People all over the world can immediately appreciate digital artwork globally. But she also asserts that digital tools do have their physical limits and possibilities. The Internet has a physical and tangible infrastructure, so the difference between virtual and real is no longer valid. The question is now, how do we perceive this digital medium in some virtual exhibition? Do we still need physical interaction with artworks? I will leave this here, so we can search for the answer while enjoying this exhibition.
IV. Third Meeting Point: Array Method
Finally, we have arrived at the very end of our journey. If we trace back to our meeting points, we have already visited Shahrul's contextual juncture and signification of his medium. As we relate suluk with his method of delivering thought, in this very particular context, we will move behind the scenes and see how the artist manages his studio practice.
Shahrul uses the looping animated drawing to manifest his idea of repetition as the primary method of his latest artworks. This repetition delivers an archetypal characteristic. In Muslim culture, we know that dzikr is in repetition as a particular method to get closer to Allah. As is looping in Shahrul's context to perform the same role. Looping for Shahrul is a way to get closer and know one’s self as he is also seeking a connection with Allah. Allah is intangible, but all of our five senses can sense His manifestation through the beauty, and it will reside in the innermost being. The beauty in Shahrul's intention is coming out through the syair, saga, and Islamic literature. He constructs his own myth with his self-portrait as a hero who travels such a long journey, and it is all manifested in his eight artworks before you.
Shahrul observes his studio work as an essential process and contemplates every aspect of the procedure. During this phase, Shahrul started to notice changes in the artistic medium he would use in his work. According to Nelson, a researcher of the creation process, he analogizes this phase as a heroic process; almost like God, the artist creates from nothing. (6) But we can certainly argue with Nelson because we know that the work resulted from various kinds of trials and errors during the studio phase. Shahrul, an artist also academician, positioning himself in the constellation of the art and knowledge that he is engaged in. He constructs his thoughts and ideas, narrates them in a broader context, and builds them with a powerful medium and technique, so his practice became essential knowledge.
Selamat berpameran Bung!
Bandung, December 2020
Kiki Rizky Soetisna Putri is a lecturer and researcher from the Aesthetics & Science of Art Research Group (ASARG), Faculty of Art and Design, ITB. Her research relates to the study and analysis of methodology on Indonesia's art practice after the 2000s. She uses phenomenology of the relationship between art objects and the artists' awareness in the social environment as her research method. She now teaches Artistic Methodology, Art Review, and supervision of final report writing. With her colleagues, from 2017, she builds CIVAS (Center for Indonesian Visual Art Studies). She lives and works in Bandung.
1. Laffan M. The Making of Indonesian Islam. 2011.
2. Barthes R. Mythologies. 1972.
3. Jung CG. Archetypes and the Collective Unconsciuous. 1934.
4. Harman G. Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything. 2017.
5. Adamson G, Bryan-Wilson J. Art in the Making: Artists and their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing. 2016.
6. Nelson R. The Jealousy of Ideas: Research Methods in the Creative Arts. 2009.