There are elephants in the living room, on the coffee table, in the kitchen. With their beady, curious eyes and boldly coloured lithe trunks, they tease and taunt, inviting viewers to join their universe…which is exactly what artist and author Mohd Yusof Ismail, better known as Yusof Gajah, has done.To the artist, fired by passion and childhood ambition, each canvas becomes a dimension of his imagination and allows him to enter into the realm of daydreams. His characters are acrobatic performers or graceful dancers, and yet are awkwardly contorted, startling with their beady-eyed innocence.
The elephant man’s artwork brings to mind the animated cartoon characters of the 1980s – the adventurous spirit of the Rupert Bear and Teddy Ruxpin, the eagerness of Aloysius Snufflleupagus from Sesame Street and the watercolours of Care Bears. However, your interpretation of the paintings may vary, Yusof points out, like how a gardener, an architect or a businessman would view a piece of land differently.
But as a vivid imagination is universal, Yusof’s elephants can be found in many corners of the world. In fact, the much-talked about bright colours and lively characters of his works has found avid fans in Scandinavian tourists. Meanwhile, his black-and-white variations are all the rage among German and Indonesian collectors.
Yusof has held exhibitions in Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, the former Czechoslovakia, Norway and Sweden and his works have found a home in the private collection of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin, The National Art Gallery, Galeri Petronas and many multinational corporations.
I meet Yusof at his studio, a converted terraced house nestled in the serene neighborhood of Taman Greenwood in Batu Caves, Selangor. He greets me warmly one fine morning despite the fact that he is recovering from a bout of gout.
We have our chat in the living area. His manager and wife Zakiah Mohd Isa sits in on the interview but leaves after a while to do something else. Still, as Yusof opens up about his art, one cannot help but feel that the pachyderms on the walls are listening in on our conversation.
Like his creations, Yusof is a diminutive figure, but his gentleness and calmness remind one of the majestic animals. The 55-year-old received his art training in Indonesia in the 1970s and has found fame on Malaysian soil and overseas for his artwork and illustrated publications for children.
Yusof says his journey into the world of pachyderms started when he was seven. He remembers his childhood in Negri Sembilan and Singapore in well-loved volumes of sketches. “I was quite naughty and used to wander around…I loved nature and biology. My parents had to replace many exercise books that I filled with my drawings,” he laughs.
As a child, he was intimidated by an elephant on whose shoulders he rode. ”I was small then…they were gigantic animals to me,” he chuckles at the memory. “Then, when I visited the temples of Borobudur, Indonesia, I found many elephant icons and sculptures. That is when I started sketching them…But that didn’t turn me into elephant man.”
As the story goes, the Gajah moniker became about after he became part of the multi-disciplinary art collective Anak Alam, which had two Yusofs. To distinguish himself from his fellow artist Yusof Osman, he adopted the name Yusof Gajah, which then appeared in an exhibition catalogue.
Over time, elephants became the central subject of his work and a part of his identity as an artist. Put simply, Yusof became Yusof Gajah on canvas and the illustrated world of his anthropomorphic elephants is Yusof’s universe.
“My personality is in the elephant,” Yusof says, gesturing towards the walls of his studio. “It’s like a bowl of rice. You can make fried rice or eat it plain. I have wondered if I would ever run out of ideas of what an elephant could do, but no…my elephants can do more…”
“I had a happy childhood,” says the artist who grew up in Johol, Negri Sembilan. “I dreamt of being an artist and it came true. Now, I want to keep on dreaming and encourage people to dream…to imagine…”
Being an artist was unheard of in the 1960s, when Yusof was just starting out. “ Getting a white-collar job was more important than being an artist then,” he recalls. “Singapore was good for me. I visited art galleries and libraries on the island and filled my sketchbooks with newspaper cuttings of art-related news and articles from the weekend edition of New Straits Times.”
People are afraid to dream, he continues, because being ambitious and wanting to be a high achiever is discouraged by a society that thrives on mediocrity. But dreamers should be stubborn – that is what got him to where he is today.
A dreamer he may be, but Yusof also appears to be firmly grounded in reality. His mentor, the late Pak Widayat, left him a nugget of advice about being an artist. “What is a painting, I asked him, He said, ‘Paintings should be on a wall.’ This is a famous artist, who did not (answer by telling me about) the philosophy of art.”
Although it was never explained to him, Yusof says he later realized what Pak Widayat meant: there will always be a market for art.
“I cannot lie and pretend that art is for art’s sake. It is my main source of income. I paint with my soul and my heart, but I have to be a businessman when it comes to selling my paintings.”
Through the years, a sense of idealism has remained consistent in his work but Yusof has matured in his approach to art. He started looking at the branding aspect and identity of his work in his twenties and when he turned 40, focused on making art means of providing for his family. A decade on, he worked on acquiring an art studio. Now, Yusof is looking into the future and planning to build a dedicated museum to develop and compile documentation on his legacy.
“I have to keep expanding. I can’t just stick to expressionism, minimalism or abstract art my whole life. Other artists stick to one style. The elephant is the main icon for me and I can play around with it.”
The multiplicity and versatility of the icon ensures that he appeals to a wider market, he says. A landscape painting can be in a living room, a smaller framed piece could possibly find itself in a child’s room. “If you stick to just one style, [you may not find yourself in a child’s room…]”
The soft-spoken, bespectacled Yusof has taken his art into a new area – children’s books. To date, he has published more than a dozen illustrated books for children and has been recognized locally and internationally for his talent. His biggest achievement was being awarded the top prize in the Noma Concours Children’s Picture Book Art Competition in Tokyo in 1996. The competition was organized by Asia-Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO.
“It’s fun to write for children. To write a good book for children, you have to be a good storyteller. You have to love children and play with children,” Yusof says. It is a challenging task and a continuous learning process even for his veteran.
He was clueless when he first started, Yusof confesses, thinking that it could not be much different to paint and illustrate a children’s book.
It is easy to think an artist can just draw inspiration from his childhood, but the truth is, much research is needed to produce a simple illustration. It sometimes requires coming out of the comfort zone, as hard as it may seem.
For example, Yusof traded his paintbrush for flippers and scuba gear to go diving in the deep blue sea, all in the name of producing a 22-page series of underwater illustrations. Another title that he is working on has been revised three times over the last five years, based on a character he loosely refers to as the Garbage Monster.
“I can’t get into the mood or feeling of this Garbage Monster, I should really go ( outdoor) and follow the garbage collectors when they work….Just researching on the internet is not enough” he chuckles.
There would be continuity if Yusof could capture the attention of children as they are more likely to recall his work when they grow up and have their own children. Clearly, the market for elephant-inspired artwork can only expand.
Yusof has a soft spot for the young ones and has conducted many storytelling sessions and art workshop for schools, artists and young art enthusiasts. Young visitors often remember him as the host of Kerengga, an art programmed which run on Radio Television Malaysia in the 1980s. Apparently, elephants and children share an amazing capacity to remember things.
Exploring art with children is a task Yusof takes seriously and he feels it is especially important in a child’s early education. In his work with the young, Yusof reveals that one method he uses is demonstrating how a mere scribble or doodle can transformed into a picture of an elephant. The simple exercise teaches children how to stretch imagination. Yusof says this is sorely lacking in the local education system.
Our schools do not train children to use both side of their brain. “Art is not that important to us. We don’t have a lot of children who know how to pain. There’s a lot to learn from elephants,” Yusof says, reflecting on his work with children , “ Elephants have human characteristics and we sometimes have to draw on elephants and animals for creativity, especially for the children.”
The world of the elephants in his paintings is also closely linked to their natural habitat- the jungle. Yusof dream of sharing a canvas with elephants wielding paintbrushes and donating the proceeds from these painting to wildlife sanctuaries or zoos.
Through his art, Yusof also aims to raise awareness of the alarming degradation of the natural habitat of elephants, an issue that is close to his heart. While he visit the zoo frequently to observe the anatomy and form of the shy and gentle creature, Yusof can only learn about their behavior when he visits the Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre in Pahang.
“Elephant s have a unique place in our society.” he says, pointing out that most cultures have their own fascination with animal, whether in art or in religion. “. “ There are only two remaining species of elephant today – the Asian and the African elephants. We are destroying the forests, their feeding ground.
Next month, in conjunction with World Children’s day, Yusof will launch two new publication : MOTHER AND CHILD, a compilation of illustrations and sketches accompanied by Yusof’s sketches and selected quotes by famous people, and ELEPHABET, his illustrated alphabet guide to life.
Most of the sketches in MOTHER AND CHILD were done when he was traveling, Yusof says, and compiled by his daughter and artist Jaja Yusof. The illustrations come from a privately commissioned watercolour series of the same title. Reproduction of the original series have been made in the form postcards, but this is the first time a selection of those paintings is featured in prints.
“This is dedicated to all mothers, but the ideas is really about celebrating the relationship between mother and child, and about nurturing … a human like characteristic that elephants also have…”
ELEPHABET, a portmanteau of the word “elephant” and “alphabet” , is an elementary revision of the alphabet for grown-up and children. Even though we all know the alphabet by heart, Yusof wants his readers to return to the basics of life. His philosophy of life is summed up in the book, which features elephant perched and morphed to form the 24 letters of the Latin alphabet. The enchanting paintings also reveal hidden symbols upon closer observation …It is also about reading between the lines, Yusof comments, with eyes dancing merrily
Grace Chin ( THE EDGE the week of September 28, 2009)