Saturday, May 3, 2008


A passion for elephants
Nuradzimmah Daim
New Street Times 2 may 2009

Yusof Ismail or better known as Yusof Gajah has a liking for elephants which he describes as gentle giants.

The 54-year-old father of three from Johol, Negri Sembilan, said he has developed the passion for elephants since he was a child when he was taken on an elephant ride by his parents.

It has then become his trademark which he now interprets through naive paintings.

His eldest daughter, Jaja, 23, also focuses on the genre, which is characterised by childlike simplistic drawings.

His wife, Zakiah Mohd Isa, 50, from Rantau, Negri Sembilan , assists him by promoting his art and would also accompany him during his exhibitions.

Apart from exhibitions, Pak Yusof is also actively involved in serving the community by teaching people, particularly children, to paint and raise funds for the needy through their artworks.

His paintings can be seen displayed at the National Heart Institute in Selayang and the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia hospital.

Streets visited Yusof Gajah's home-cum-studio in Taman Berjaya, Batu Caves, and found out more about his fascination with elephants and nature, in general, through his paintings.

Q: What is your normal day like?

A: I start really early in the day and would do some gardening and feed my guppies. After breakfast, I start work and sometimes stop for a quick nap around noon.

However, I only paint when I feel like it. I sometimes listen to light or classical music, depending on the situation, while working.

If I am not painting, I would spend my time reading books on arts.

I am now working on a black and white exhibition series and have managed to paint 30 pieces of artwork so far. However, it is sometimes difficult to complete the series when there people interested in buying the artwork you are working on.

Q: What is native art? There are others who focus on abstract, realistic, or even portrait paintings?

A: Naive is related to how a child interprets things and children don't lie. Also, there is not much promotion on naive arts in Malaysia, although it is very popular in other countries.

There are Balinese arts, Thai arts, but what do we have to promote to others outside Malaysia? I feel that there is so much that we can do to boost our arts.

For instance, if every district in Malaysia has an art gallery, it would make it easier for the artist from that particular place to promote his artworks and the locals would appreciate art more as it is easily available to them.

Presently, we have National Art Gallery and a few private galleries, and not everyone can go there anytime they want. So it is difficult for the community to connect with art.

Also, we can have our own auction house where art buyers can actually sell back their prized paintings with a higher price like in Indonesia. So, instead of buying paintings for their passion, it is also a form of investment.

Q: People have the impression that paintings are expensive. Why is that? How about yours?

A: The thing about paintings in Malaysia is that only the rich can afford them. If you earn RM1,500 a month, how can you afford paintings that costs thousands of ringgit each? That is why in my gallery at the Central Market annexe, I sell paintings that everyone can afford. And also, I get artists interested to paint and sell their art there and I take a 30 per cent commission while I provide the material and space for them. Some of them can even earn RM3,000 to RM4,000 per month through their paintings.

Most artists want to sell their paintings at a high price as they feel that it's their pride.

We have to adjust accordingly, like when we talk to a child, we have to make it simple for them to understand. It is the same thing with paintings.

However, it doesn't mean that we are not proud of our artwork so much so that we are willing to depart with it for a low price. I have sold paintings as cheap as RM300 and as high as hundreds of thousands of ringgit.

Q: How do you tell whether a person is a good artist?

A: I can tell through his or her sketch-work as it is the most basic skill needed for art. That is why, those who wish to learn from me need to know how to sketch. In the syllabus I had prepared for the National Arts Academy, I also stressed the importance of sketching skills.

If you are a good sketcher, the rest is easy, no matter what material you are using.

Q: Who is your mentor? Did you go for formal arts classes and where?

A: My mentor is the Indonesian artist Widayat whom I met when I studied arts at the Akademi Seni Rupa Indonesia (Asri) in the 1970s. His work is in a class of its own.

Q: Tell us about your community works.

A: I have worked with corporate companies that had managed to raise funds through paintings. However, I don't do it (paintings) myself. Instead, I teach the staff's children and they produce their artworks to be sold. In a way, the children learn to appreciate arts and the companies have done their bit for charity.

The problem with Malaysian artists is that they are selfish. They keep to themselves and refuse to be involved in charity work. Art is an important element in our lives, so it is important for artists to also play their part in the society.

Q: What is your ultimate dream as an artist?

A: I want to have my own museum where the public can come and see my artwork anytime. I have studios and later I opened two galleries, one in City Square and the other at Central Market's annex. For an artist, it is important to have these avenues to showcase your works, so you will not be forgotten especially after you have died.

I want my children to manage the museum when I'm no longer around.

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