Monday, April 20, 2009

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.”