Monday, April 20, 2009

Lucien de Guise: Naive art fits nicely with Malaysia's grace

ANYONE who has read this column more than once will be familiar with the Central Market Annexe. It's Malaysia in microcosm, at a pace that is more amphetamine than nasi lemak and with the emphasis usually on the avant garde.
For the next 10 days, there will be a more playful ambience, as "naive art" is in residence.

This is not a genre that has taken Malaysia by storm so far. The local art market wants to look grown-up, and naive doesn't seem to fit that bill. Some of naive art's siblings do, however. These include "marginal art", "outsider art" and "art brut".

The last can be the coolest thing on the Manhattan auctioneer's block when it was created by a dead ex-graffiti artist like Jean-Michel Basquiat. Madonna's ex-boyfriend may have wandered the streets of New York in bare feet before he died at 27, but his paintings fetch tens of millions of ringgit.

"Naive" artists tend to have decent shoes but less street credibility. The kampung is their home. When they are accepted by the public, the art community usually dismisses them as kitsch. It's a good thing they have their freshness and goodwill to fall back on. They can expect fair treatment in some countries more than others.
In France, there are many museums dedicated to their work. In most parts of Asia, their time has yet to come.

China is one of the exceptions. Not only is naive art a widely admired medium in itself, it also extends into the mainstream. This isn't just tourists returning with armfuls of Jinshan folk art. Many of China's greatest 20th century artists could be slipped straight into the "naive" pigeonhole. Pioneers like Ding Yangyong and Cui Zifan revel in the childlike, producing works of charm and occasional profundity.

Naive art does well in places where collectors have confidence in their own taste. That means France, Japan, traditional China and, to some extent, the United States. Elsewhere, there is usually anxiety.

Which brings us to Malaysia. There is art aplenty, but is there confidence? Is it uncool to be naive when the good fight is being waged for sophistication? Wawasan 2020 never mentioned seeing the world through the forgiving eyes of innocence. The vision was meant to turn Malaysians into street fighters in the global hood. I don't think art was mentioned, and naive art would surely be for softies.

It's a shame naive art doesn't receive more admiration in Malaysia. This is in many ways its natural habitat. It is colourful and gentle and non-confrontational. Malaysia is not about angst, and why should it be? This is a country blessed by God. It's not Aceh, Myanmar or Sichuan. Malaysian communities may bicker over dividing the economic and political cake, but at least there is a cake to be divided.

No matter how hard local artists try to get some righteous anger in their hearts, they could still be depended on to do the respectful hand-kissing routine for a Hari Raya muhibah advertisement. Politics in Malaysia is also surprisingly gentlemanly. When one party dislikes another, it hurls nothing more incendiary than an insult. Even the parliamentary insults are harmless; nothing about mothers or sisters.

If France had been playing Malaysia instead of Italy in the World Cup final, Zinedine Zidane would have played the full game. And France would have won.

"Malaysian Naive Art Showcase 08" shows just how appropriate the genre is to here. Malaysia may not be ready for it yet, but those naive painters keep painting away. The prime mover is the man who acquired a name to match his large but friendly works.

Yusof "Gajah" is not alone in his herd. In addition to more like-minded artists than most collectors would imagine, there are two young gajah involved. Yusof's son and daughter are keeping up the tradition although they have diversified from elephants into cats and dinosaurs.

Yusof Gajah is keen to get a museum going. "If there is no museum, then there is nowhere to see the works," he says in distress.

He would probably like people to buy the works as well, but the first priority is visitors. He ought to have a head start with naive art. It's a genre that can cut across all boundaries. It's not just for the 30- to 50-year-old professionals who are propping up the rest of the art scene.

I spotted some old folk at the show, and my comparatively young children put in a full uncomplaining 30 minutes. This is a personal best for them.

The time for naive art should be arriving soon, now that conceptual has reached the limits of desperate inventiveness. If art has to have a message (and Samuel Goldwyn of MGM believed "messages should only be sent by Western Union"), then it doesn't have to be a big angry message in the bad-boy tradition.

Yusof Gajah and his circle make oblique references to mankind's place in the natural world, for example. Like so much naive art, it is handled with charm and humour - that rarest of all intrusions in art.


By Dian
KL LIFESTYLE February 2007

Born in Negeri Sembilan, Mohd Yusof bin Ismail or Yusof Gajah as he is fondly known, is a catalyst to the growth of Malaysia’s naïve art scene. His paintings recapture the fondest of childhood memories through quirky strokes and dreamy renditions. No rules rule. His spirit runs free and the result, colourful landscapes from under the banner of naïve art. His signature elephant series is undeniable by a minimal and contemporary masterpiece. Hardcore artists who refuse to crawl out of their hole label him commercial, but he is unfazed by criticism,

“They are not going to help me when I don’t have money. I make a living out of painting, so I have to map a marketing strategy to sell my paintings. Instead of collecting dust in a dingy storeroom somewhere, I want my artwork to be appreciated.”
He urges Malaysian artist to be realistic, to be an artist of this era. “There will not be another Van Gogh, and definitely not one in Malaysia,” he points out. Yusof is ever willing to share his knowledge to help budding artists find their footing and he believes as an artist they should focus on creativity and paint what people like instead of constantly blaming the society for not being supportive. Currently, he has 15 new artists under his wing who participate actively along-side their mentor in running Yusof Gajah’s galleries and their artwork is also included for sale in these galleries. Yusof Gajah also embarked on a mission to open a wood carving studio with the aid of young local islanders who attended a wood carving course in Bali through the sponsorship of Langkawi Development Authority (LADA).

A graduated of Akademi Seni Rupa Indonesia, Yusof is grateful for the knowledge, creativity and discipline taught by Indonesia’s best art academy. “It was difficult getting into that art school in Indonesia as they have a very strict requirement. Instead of exam results, they scrutinize your artwork and if they think you fit the bill, you gain admission.” Yusof recalls the hardship while studying when he received a bad grade for not submitting one of the 500 sketches he was supposed to complete.
Today, Yusof Gajah’s work is much sought after by art collectors in Malaysia and overseas. His work captured the eye of our new king, Yang di-Pertuan Agung Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin, and Yusof is deeply honoured to have his Mjesty as his latest art collector.
Art collectors from Indonesia are very fond of 3 Malaysian artists – Latif Mohidin, Ibrahim Hussein and Yusof Gajah himself. Yusof’s work was auctioned in Larasati Auction House in Indonesia, a popular auction house with the likes of Christie’s.

“ Having my paintings sold in Larasati is truly an honour for me as Malaysian artist find it hard to penetrate the Indonesian market because of the abundant talented local artists,” reveals this painter who has been painting elephants for 30 years now. His work is not only celebrated in Malaysia but have won the adoration of many Scandinavians who are compelled to obtain one of his masterpieces before leaving the country.
“Most of them worked in Kuala Lumpur previously and I have taught some of their children. They are especially in love with the elephant paintings I do.”
Last year, Yusof’s painting was adorned on the KL Monorail train that snakes through the city centre. Commissioned by Malaysia Airlines, Yusof depicted sceneries of Stockholm in his signature style, getting the inspiration through research and books. He finally got to see the landmarks of the city when he and Harris Ribut worked on the Elephantoidea and the Fat Ladies exhibition in Stockholm, 2005, months after completing the artwork for MAS. His proudest moment in life came when he made a speech in front of over 50 ambassadors from all over the world after he was bestowed an award for children’s book illustration in Tokyo, Japan. Yusof also had his 30 minutes of fame when he was featured in NHK’S Who’s Who.
“ I want to be remembered as someone who promoted Malaysian’s naïve art scene and someday, I hope my dream of opening an art museum with my own money would come true,” reveals Yusof, who is working out plans to promote batik art soon. Accompanying him everywhere he goes is his doting wife, Zakiah Md Isa who is Yusof Gajah’s pillar of strength. “ She’s my everything,” he coyly adds. When he is not traveling, Yusof can be found working on canvases in his spacious Batu Caves studio.


By Yam Phui Yee, Star Metro
Wednesday 7th February 2007

Famous artist would think twice about revealing their artistic secrets to others. While they decide, Yusof “Gajah” would have set up a new gallery at the ground floor of Central Market Annexe in Kuala Lumpur and open his doors to the public to spend their day there, enabling the public to paint on canvas with the pros like him.
After all, Yusof has painted a KL Monorail train, held exhibitions in Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Sweden and Czechoslovakia, won prestigious awards and his artwork dons our King’s palace.
Mohd Yusof Ismail, known as Yusof “Gajah” after he made elephants his trademark subject, recently opened the Gajah Gajah Gallery, an addition to the existing gallery in City Square, which is exclusively for
Yusof’s adorable and poignant masterpieces.
For RM 50, the public can paint under the guidance of the gallery’s artist, all whom paint naïve art, which Yusof is most notable for.
“If politicians can go down to the grassroots, why can’t artist go to the society? For them to appreciate art, we must be involved and not confine ourselves in the studio,” said Yusof, whose style of painting survived the poor recognition of the 1970’s.
A senior artist in his own right, he did not seem perturbed by the thought of being looked down by others for opening an outlet in a humble art haunt, or the fact that he is creating competition in his niche.
To him, competition is healthy and the skills of an artist can be imitated but not the inner feelings.
“The RM 50 is just for the canvas and materials used. Lesson is free. If they can’t complete the painting in one session, they can come again at no charge,” said the light-hearted man.
Without any spotlight, the colourful gallery is simple, free and with background music ranging from jazz to Balinese tunes,
On weekends and public holidays, woodcarving demonstrations keep curious customers flocking in.
At Gajah Gajah Gallery, everyone is welcome.
Yusof’s wife, whom foreigners refer to as “Mrs. Gajah,” is the art promoter while their eldest daughter Nur Yusniza quit her job at a child development lab to help promote the love of art.
“ I grew up in a family that lives in art. I’m like a baby elephant holding the parent’s tail and just follow its way,” said Yusniza, a psychology graduate.
The gallery is home to about 15 artists and carpenters including
Azmi “S.H.” Shariff, Rosli Mohd Dol, Ismail Baba, Ali Akbar and Ainur Azura Ruslan.
The folks here are helpful, chatty and warm, but “will not disturb you when you are painting if you request so.”
To arrange for a painting session, call 03-2164 2100 or 013-3310954.
Opening hours are 10am to 9 pm.

If elephants could fly

Wilson Henry

Pachyderms are his forte but Yusuf Gajah recently saw birds in a new light, through the eyes of children.

“HOW many walls does a house have?” asks Yusuf “Gajah” whose real name is Mohd Yusof Ismail.

Not waiting for an answer, the long-haired artist continues: “And how many houses are there in the country? That’s your market waiting for art.”

Not all walls that need paintings are in houses; some are in hospitals, hotels and corporations.

But wherever these walls are, they are waiting to be filled with art. Yusuf, born in Johol, Negri Sembilan, has been painting since he graduated from Akademi Seni Rupa in Jogjakarta in the 70s.

Yusuf paints... elephants, naturally. He has painted hundred and hundreds of these pachyderms. His elephant art is snapped up mostly by Scandinavians and he is constantly being asked about his early series by other interested collectors.

When he first started painting, he began with his landscape series before moving on to elephants, using a mix of styles.

His first solo exhibition was Gaja Gaja in 1981 in KL and his most recent, Elephantoidea series was in 2004 in Jogjakarta.

Apart from elephants, Yusuf also produces naive art.

Naive art, according to art writer Martine Genicot, is characterised by an unusual approach to the formal qualities of painting and awkward drawing skills, resulting in an almost childish image.

“The carefree abandon can only come through innocence and heartfelt emotions,” he says.

That same spirit of abandon was also apparent amongst children participants in the recent Siemens Free Like A Bird workshop. This is one of Yusuf’s recent projects, a project he’s especially proud of since many of the works ended up on the walls of Institut Jantung Negara, Hospital Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Selayang Hospital and Siltera in Kulim, Kedah.

“Working with children is much easier than with adults. They are more honest and less restricted. Each canvas for them is a story. They are not restrained unlike their parents,” says Yusuf.

For the last 20 years, he had worked with children in Europe and in Malaysia — something the people at Siemens had noted before they approached him four years ago to work on their projects.

“I prefer to let the children explore their own imaginations without imposing on them my own ideas and values. But there are some parents who hamper this by giving their children instructions on what needs to be done. That doesn’t help the children explore as they will end up following instructions.”

Yusuf, whose own art style is whimsical, childlike and seemingly easy to imitate, is colourful and free.

The irony is that it is not easy to produce such art that is an expression of his own experience of producing naive art.

Twenty of the pieces produced at the workshop were executed with bright colours in mixed medium and had astonishing composition, thought and texture.

There were birds in mid-flight, birds striking poses and showing off an amazing array of coloured feathers and plumes — all captured by children who freed their minds to the surroundings in the Bird Park in Kuala Lumpur.

“I made sure that I did not influence the children. I merely taught them techniques such as cleaning their brushes before using another colour,” says Yusuf.

He is also waiting to develop the art scene in Langkawi. “In Bali there is Balinese art, but in Langkawi, we don’t have anything. I am hoping to change that by opening an art gallery there and getting the villagers involved in it.”

Whimsical elephants

Gajah Gajah is unmistakably a unique gallery of all things elephants. No matter how hard he tries, artist Yusof Gajah just can’t get away from painting more of them- by Veronica Alexis, Home Décor Concept Magazine, March/April Edition 2005

Picking up from a nickname bestowed upon him in his early days, Yusof ‘Gajah’, the artist behind this quaint gallery, Gajah Gajah, never thought that it would have such a gargantuan effect on his life and his art form.
It all started way back in 1974 when he was in an art community. “There were two yusof’s in this group and they always had trouble calling one without the other responding. So, one day as I was painting an elephant, one of them called me Yusof Gajah and the name just stuck. From then on I was known as Yusof ‘Gajah’.” For the curious minded, the other yusof became Yusof ‘Volkswagen’. Yusof, born Mohd Yusof Bin Ismail, has since gained eponymous recognition over his naïve art, which depicts whimsical forms of elephants caught in quirky humorous poses.
From traditional styles, Yusof progressed to more contemporary styles. His diversity is visible over his depiction of stylized elephants using a combination of acrylic, watercolor and oil. Some of his more popular work is depicted in the ‘Mother and Child Series’ as well as the ‘wood elephant’ series.
He has tried to deviate from just painting elephants but for more strange reason has never been successful as the elephant element would still crop up within the canvass. Like the elephant, Yusof ‘Gajah’ draws his humility from his favorite subject and has made his artwork more affordable by producing postcard versions of his work. His work has also become very popular with the Scandinavians too having made inroads into the part of the world. He was even flown to the Province by an over enthusiastic customer who brought 24 pieces of his artwork and wanted Yusof to personally hang them up for him the best way the artist saw fit.
Popularly known for his extraordinary elephants theme paintings, Yusof ‘Gajah’ has a successful career as an artist, and has illustrated children’s picture books with his bright, natural design. One of the more notable of his books “Chemophant” was published to help children understand cancer better and also awareness on its effects. He has received numerous awards including the Best Children’s Book Illustration from the National Book Council of Malaysia and the Grand Prix (The Real Elephant) for Noma Concours for the Children’s Picture Book Illustration, (ACCU) in Tokyo, Japan.

Elephant Stomp

Genial beasts or savage creatures? One artist paints his own elephant story to tell, Home Pride Magazine, June 2005

If you not familiar with the work of Yusof Gajah, you might just get a clue from his name. Truly like an extension of his identity, the elephant, you might say, is everything that this artist stands for. “The elephant is the ingredient of my subject matter”, as he would tell you. “It has become my icon.” And so it really has. Known for his colourful and abstract depiction of elephants, Yusof’s work is among one of the more recognizable facets of Malaysian art. But this identity is one that has taken him over two decades to carve.

Journey of the Elephant

As early as the age of seven, as he recalls, Yusof was already showing an interested in art. But back in the 60’s, even paper was scarce, and the young artist-in-making had to resort to doodling on his school books to express himself. “I used to fill up every page of my textbooks,” he vividly recalls. His ride with elephants came a little bit later. It was in the mid-70, in fact, when the artist adopted the name Yusof ‘Gajah’. Given to him by a friend of a friend after seeing one of his elephant pieces, the name stuck on. In fact, it was this name that had spurred him to focus solely on elephants as his subject matter.

Elephants can be seen even in his earlier work, though with much less prominence. Done in the form of naïve art, these early paintings produce a collection known as his landscape series, which, until today, receive attention among his collectors. In time, however, this gave way to his current style of contemporary art, which brings the elephant to the forefront in a bold exploration of colour, shape and form. Yusof’s liberal use bright and contrasting is one of the most definitive aspects of his work – something that has remained constant throughout the whole of his artistic career.

Yusof The Realist

Being a successful artist in Malaysia means knowing how to balance between the art scene and the business aspect of the field. Many artists, according to Yusof, try to avoid being labeled as ‘commercial’. While there is always a fine line to tread, he is more practical. “I try to think of what my customers will like, and come up with something new everyday.”

Inspired by bright, sunny conditions, Yusof is always keen to heighten art appreciation within society. Toward this end, he has involved himself with many charity events, and has also participated in children’s workshops to promote reading and literacy. To date, he has even illustrated 20 children’s books- the most recent one being collaboration with the National Cancer Society.

A word On Art

Since the 80’s and 90’s, according to Yusof, Malaysians have shown a greater appreciation for art, especially with the rise of what he calls ‘new millionaires’ and young couples returning from their studies abroad. However, as he will tell you, “most people don’t spend enough an art as compared to other things for the house like the sofas.”

He advises that when purchasing artwork, people should not only find something that fits their taste but to think of the process as a future investment. Look for the works of good budding artists, he says, whose value increase in 10 to 15 years.

As for himself, Yusof thinks that his art is more suited to houses with a minimal-style design. He currently has over 20 customers who keen collector of his elephant artwork. “There are not many painters here who paint elephants seriously,” he says. This undoubtedly makes his painting unique in the art scene.

His vivid use of colour, in fact, makes his art more popular among certain foreign customers than others. Scandinavians, in particular, make up his biggest clientele. The reason for this? “People from different countries like different colours. The German like earth tones, whereas the Japanese like pastel colours. Scandinavians have long winters, so they like bright colours”.

Elephants Taking Stand

Yusof latest endeavor, which he reveals specially to Home Pride, is a collection of wooden sculptures done in the form of his elephant work. Taking inspiration from the wayang kulit concept, these sculptures are flat-like and are fixed onto a wooden base fore more 3 dimensional effects.

Fans of his art will be able to see his characteristic elephants in a whole new form. Each piece is uniquely different, designed with its own distinctive shape and colour form. What’s interesting about these sculptures is the reverse side on each piece, which reveals a whole different aspect to each elephant. Known as ‘the otherside’, the painting here gives each sculpture a special character that relates to the elephant in front.

True to his word, Yusof continually comes up with new collections for the public. And even after all these years, his passion of elephants remains the same. As he would tell you himself, “I never get bored of doing elephants.”

We certainly hope not.

Whimsical elephants

Portrait of the artist as a dreamer

Artists must embrace society so that their work is understood by those outside their world, a daydreamer with a brush tells Vijaya Rani, Life Sunday, October 24, 1999

The massage that Dumbo, the flying elephant, has for children-to be bold and adventurous-is an enduring remainder of the power of our dreams. Dumbo’s inspiring adventures have a special meaning for the artist yusof Ismail @ Yusof Gajah, who loves to stir the imagination of the young as well as old.
“I have a wonderful childhood, with time to daydream and fantasies, so it was only natural that I became an artist,” he says.Yusof believes that every child needs a few awe-inspiring tales to add some joy and fanciful imaginings to their memory. As a result, he has spent much of his fatherhood exposing his children to moving experiences so that they too may have an inspirational childhood. Home, therefore, is a creative den for his daughter, Jaja, 16, and sons, Jojo, 14 and Jiji, 4. “We parents today are the bow and our children the arrows who will be going on to the future,” says Yusof. “So it is our duty to sharpen their skills and prepare them well.”
The metaphor has already found its target. His teenage son and daughter have sold their paintings in aid of social and charity groups in the last few tears. “Next I hope to hold an exhibition of father-child artist which I believe will promote art as a family activity. It is important for an artist to get the family to understand his art so that they will value and safeguard his work after his death,” says Yusof, who laments that many artist has disappear into oblivion for lack of appreciation by family and friends.
“Only if the family understands can the artist make an impression on his community, even though not everyone can afford to buy such work,” he adds. The community figures prominently in Yusof’s mission. “Artist must involve the community in their works so that the public can understand their ideas,” he says. “When an artist is at work, he may seem a little withdrawn, but once a piece is done he should step back into reality and take on his responsibilities.”
So, Yusof family is steeped in his naïve art and ‘back to basics’ values. “Our quality of life may have improved and we spend much on other activities but when comes to art we give our children only a small piece of paper and a box of crayon!” says Yusof, showing some exasperation. On this part, Yusof is determined to give art its due place, i.e as an essential part of life.
“Everybody needs art to stimulate thought or relax the mind. Surely no ones likes to stare at a blank wall, so it is a vital part of life which no one should do without,” says Yusof. His visible output makes it clear that he has more than the average share of mental stimulation. Hundreds of pieces crowd his home and studio at the Kuala Lumpur Budaya Kraf Complex off Jalan Conlay. One ardent supporter of his point of view is his wife, Zakiah Mohd Isa, who is now his full time promoter. Over past two decades, Zakiah has learnt not just to appreciate art, but also the sacrifices Yusof has made to bring his vocation to the community.
So far, his massage has found expression in six solo exhibitions in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Japan so far. Among his output are over 15 children’s books, numerous puppet theatre shows and a television programme for the young. Having been trained at art school in Yogjakarta (1972-1975), which share a strong social agenda, Yusof’s heart is close to issues such as children, family, environment and traditional values.
Now, he is raising funds for the Hospital Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (HUKM) welfare community. “We got children of staff and others interest in art to produce exceptionally big paintings to be put up on the walls of the hospital and we hope these pieces will be sponsored to raise funds for welfare projects,” says Yusof. This is not the first time the Yusof family has pitched in with other like minded artists for charitable causes. “We must set aside time, money and energy for children, the sick and less fortunate in order to lead a fulfilling life,” says Zakiah.
As an artist, Yusof says, his greatest personal achievement was winning the Noma Concours for Children’s Picture Book Illustrator Award in Tokyo, Japan in 1997. He won the Runner-up Award in 1992 and encouragement Award in 1988. He has also won best Children’s Book Illustrator and Picture Book Awards from National Book Council in 1992.