Monday, April 20, 2009

A long-drawn jumbo affair

A long-drawn jumbo affair by Rubin khoo
Sunday Star October 8, 2000

One of the earliest childhood memories for artist Yusof Ismail is that of him being taken on an elephant ride while visiting the zoo with his parent. Little did he know that the majestic creature upon which he sat astride was to become of his symbol of identity as an artist.
Better known today as Yusof Gajah, the artist has spent the past 20 years perfecting his visual representation of the elephant. Reflecting upon the evolution of his work, Yusof says his work has come a long way from his early beginnings as a realist painter to becoming a versatile elephant painter, encompassing a variety of style. Despite having devoted a substantial part of his career to painting the elephant, Yusof declares with conviction that his subject matter continues to fascinate him. “You know the Zen Master; some of them take 40 years to draw a blade of grass. Like that, I feel the challenge to continue until I am fed up of elephants. But it’s been more than 20 years, and I’m still doing it.
“I have this fantasy and imagination where I can see a lot of things. So when I get bored, I can come up with varieties. The elephant I paint is not real elephant but is done in relation to human.” In his latest series of work, currently being exhibit at Tinta Gallery, Yusof continues to further explore issues that concern the survival of the elephant but highlights the plight of the family of elephants, “elephantoidea.’ “While going through some books on elephants and studying the family tree, I came across the name of a family of animals, “elephantoidea.” The name (Elephant-oh!-idea) inspired this exhibition. With more and more people claiming land areas, the elephantoidea is facing extinction. Now there are only two left.”
In his ninth solo exhibition, Yusof present 50 pieces which use a variety of styles, watercolours, gouache on paper and acrylic on canvas. The work represent a continuation of the “Gajah Series” with the inclusion of the “elephantoidea series” and “mother and child series.” Here Yusof explores the important role of mother in nurturing the development of their child. Using simple themes like “touch”, “afraid,” “home,’ and “be careful son” this series depicts the relationship between the mother and child.
In the catalogue, Yusof writes passionately about the bleak future of the elephant, that “everywhere elephants are on the retreat, forced back by the tide of humanity.” Stressing that “it our duty to preserve and save this animal from extinction before they follow the same fate as the rest of the “elephantoidea” family. It was not, however, always his attention to feature elephants so prominently in his work. There was the elephant ride at the zoo but the roots of his fascination were most probably grounded when Yusof went as a young student to Yogjakarta, Indonesia. There Yusof recalls visiting the renowned artist Affandi. “I went to his house and saw that his pool was in the shape of an elephant, designed in the way because the river adjacent to his house was named after the ‘Gajah’. During that time there, I used to visit the temples where the sculptures of ‘Ganesha’ were featured prominently.”
But it was back here and through his involment with “Anak Alam” artists that Yusof Ismail found his calling as an artist. In one of the shows held during the mid-70s, the show catalogue writer Johan Jaafar wrote in reference to Yusof’s painting of a quartet of elephant that the young artist had beberapa ekor gajah menjerit dalam otaknya (a few elephants shouting in his head). It was then that Yusof Ismail became Yusof Gajah and the artist has not looked back since. “It grew from this. I thought it would interesting, so I developed my style. To be good in any field, you have to be disciplined. So for the past 20 years, I have been practicing sketching. I also go through many books to actually study the elephant.”
It is this deeper understanding an empathy perhaps that places Yusof’s work above others. “Some try to follow,” he says “but they miss the point behind it.” When confront with paintings from this series and others, one cannot deny his claim. While they may appear too humorous and perhaps childlike in its orientation, there no doubt that his work is preoccupied with real issues in a real world. To quote journalist J.Anu, “His paintings reveal the artist’s interest in contemporary events as well as his life long fascination with Nature and man’s in it.”
With such a strong sense of social awareness, it is not surprising that Yusof is motivated by the conviction that artist must go beyond their personal satisfaction and contribute to society. Today the accomplished children’s book illustrator and winner of several prestigious awards, the latest being the Grand Prix ( The Real Elephant) award at Noma Concours for children’s book in Japan, is involved in several projects, working mainly with children.
Children, he says, represent the future of any society and therefore, it is imperative that the right foundation is laid. Art, he believes, is the medium that allows to confront issues while at the same time develops their creativity. It is perhaps for this reason that a substantional proposition of his work adopt the vibrant colours. “Some of the paintings are suitable for the kid’s rooms or kindergartens. I find that most people when it comes to kids think Walt Disney but it doesn’t have to be. Why not use our own.”
Over the last couples of years, Yusof has participated in a number of projects involving children-the Saint John Primary School Exhibition where the paintings of the students were sold to raise funds for the school library, the “Artifact on Canvas,” held with the Islamic Museum Of Art as well as the recent “One World- One Humanity” International Children’s Painting Exhibition, organized by Yayasan Seni Berdaftar. While working with children, Yusof hope to play the role of a mentor, inspiring and guiding his young students rather than teaching. Human beings, he says emphatically, have 120 skills and painting is one of them can be developed.
His participation in these charitable projects are based on understanding that the children paint and they sell their own artwork. This, he says, will achieve a dual objective whereby children are given the opportunity to paint while simultaneously developing the culture of helping others. Yusof is now hoping to extend the premise of helping oneself to his other cause-preserving the elephant. He is at present toying with the idea of painting with the baby elephants at the elephant sanctuary in Pahang.
“If I can get the sponsorship I would like to spend some time at the sanctuary where I will get the huge canvas and get the elephants to play around on it with paint. Then I will touch it up, cut it into small pieces and sell them. The funds can then be used for the sanctuary. I have done quite a lot for the elephants, perhaps they now should help themselves,” he laughs.