ART: Elephant man
Artist Yusof Gajah draws inspiration from these gentle animals for his works. SUZANNA PILLAY writes.
TO most people, the humble elephant is just another creature that calls the jungle home. But for Malaysian artist Yusof Gajah, the animal has come to represent much more.
Apart from being a versatile muse for Yusof’s art, it is now synonymous with the artist as a brand which makes his artwork distinctive.
“In this era, branding plays such an important part in marketing and selling a product. The same goes for art. Everyone can paint but to be known as an artist takes time.
“If you have a huge capital, you can spend a lot of money making a name for yourself through branding, but for most artists, this is very difficult. I guess I was lucky that my passion for drawing elephants earned me the nickname of Yusof Gajah, and the name stuck.”
He believes his work conveys the message that sometimes you don’t have to look for complicated subjects to paint, as he is able to reinvent and showcase his favourite pachyderm in different styles of painting all the time.
His work is loved in Scandinavia, England, Japan, Indonesia and Germany and looks set to win over new fans worldwide.
At the recent Frankfurt International Book Fair this year, two of his latest books Elephabet and Mother & Child were a big hit with visitors there.
“I take the elephant as the main focus in my art and I can do anything with it. You just need a creative mind and skills,” said Yusof.
His fascination with elephants stems from the fact that these majestic creatures play a very important role in many societies and cultures around the world.
Apart from representing deities in some religions, they are used as a means of transportation and weaponry.
They are also easy creatures for people to recognise and relate to because only two species remain in the world — the African and Asian elephants. Yusof paints both in his work.
He recently launched both books together with his solo exhibition Yusof Gajah@Aliyaa.
The exhibition will be on until Nov 29 at the Aliyaa Island Restaurant and Bar in Lorong Dungun, Damansara Heights. Incidently aliyaa is Singhalese for elephant.
“It seemed like a fitting place to hold my exhibition considering it was in keeping with my elephant theme.”
“The books are the first two printed for adults and are a series of sketches and water colours which I did while travelling around the world. They are like a journal to me. I think it’s time artists in this country have more of their work printed in books,” he said.
Mother & Child is a selection from a series of water colours celebrating motherhood and the family.
Meanwhile, Elephabet is a book using elephant drawings to illustrate the 26 letters of the alphabet and is an ABC of inspirational messages on life as seen by Yusof. It has been received well both here and at the Frankfurt book fair.
Elephabet flash cards are also available for children and Yusof is also in the process of completing EleDoodles for them too.
Images from the SCBWI Malaysia Conference 20 November 2009 at Lim Kok Wing University of Creative Technology, Cyberjaya. Top to Bottom:
- Yusof Gajah's colourful Elephabet form part of the Illustrators Exhibition
- Linda Tan Lingard, President of SCBWI Malaysia presenting a token of appreciation to Yusof Gajah. Looking on is Dato' Dr Yeoh, Vice-President of Lim Kok Wing University of Creative Technology (LUCT). Sarah Joan Mokhtar, Vice-President of SCBWI Malaysia is the MC.
- The audience and front row: Mrs Zakiah (Mrs Yusof Gajah), Yusof Gajah, Dato' Dr Yeoh and Linda Tan Lingard
- Yusof Gajah and well-known APO? Cartoonist and MMU Lecturer, Sireh aka Anuar Hassan
- Panel discussion moderated by Sarah Joan Mokhtar. Panelists from Left to Right: Sireh, Yusof Gajah and Leowania Leong, Editor.
- Sireh talking animatedly during the panel discussion
- Part of the audience
A senior Malaysian artist produces two beautiful and inspiring picture books.
AT first glance, you would think artist Yusof Gajah’s latest projects, two picture books entitled Elephabet and Mother & Child, are meant for children. They are filled with his signature elephant drawings, whimsical and inspiring. The colours are vibrant and jump out at you.
Upon closer inspection, however, you realise that both books are also filled with nuggets of information that provide intriguing and sometimes cryptic glimpses of Yusof’s thoughts.
Known for his penchant for all things elephant (he even adopted Gajah, which is elephant in Malay, as part of his moniker), Yusof is best known for his Naive style paintings.
Yusof, whose real name is Mohd Yusof Ismail, developed a passion for pachyderms after one of his works featured in an exhibition with the famed Anak Alam artist collective in the mid-1970s prompted the show’s catalogue writer, Johan Jaafar, to eloquently describe the artist as having “beberapa ekor gajah menjerit dalam otaknya ... (a few elephants shouting in his head)”.
In an interview with The Star in 1998, the Negri Sembilan-born artist cheekily confessed to seeing elephants everywhere – give him a leaf and he will read an elephant in it, he said!
As for his style, its roots lie in several decades spent exploring Naive art. Also known as Naif art, this style refers to the work of artists who reject conventional representation or expression of real objects. Brilliant, saturated colour; chaotic detail; and an absence of perspective are hallmarks of this form.
The style’s two-dimensionality lends itself well to children’s picture book illustrations, an area in which Yusof has excelled over the years; he has won several prestigious awards including the 1997 Grand Prix award at the UN-organised Noma Concours for Children’s Picture Book Illustrations.
While children would certainly love the illustrations in these two new books, their words would be better appreciated by adults.
In Elephabets, Yusof fashions the letters of the alphabet out of (what else?) elephants. While the drawing takes centre stage, it is the musings that come with each letter that beg a second look. On the page for the letter D, for example, he talks about a dream he had about an elephant making a path in the jungle, and alludes to his desire to follow his own direction in life.
The letter D talks about the author striving to follow his own direction in life.
In Mother & Child, Yusof explores the relationship between parent and child, again through his drawings and various inspirational quotes. And again, the drawings are outstanding, and would not look out of place framed on a wall.
“These are my first adult books,” says Yusof, 55. He had previously published children’s books under Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, most famously, Tiga Ekor Gajah.
“I wanted them to be fun, humorous and witty,” says Yusof of this latest effort.
He has also produced a set of flash cards for children, so young and old alike get to enjoy the illustrations.
For inspiration, he draws on his childhood, which he calls “wonderful”. “I enjoyed every moment of it,” he says. “Children are honest, happy, fun, curious and see the world differently from adults.”
Yusof strives to capture that innocence in his books, giving his readers fantastical renditions of the humble elephant, which run the gamut of Byzantine-inspired to Picasso-like.
“The books are inspired by elephants and children,” he says. “Also by my relationship with God, and humans and nature.”
Though these two books are meant for adults, Yusof is working on an Elephabet activity book for children. He is also working with talented children in visual arts.
> ‘Elephabet’ and ‘Mother & Child’ retail for RM40 each, and the accompanying flash cards are RM10 each. They are available at all Borders bookstore outlets and, from next month onwards, at Kinokuniya Bookstores at Suria KLCC.
SCBWI Malaysia is a not-for-profit organization set up to develop local writers and illustrators and to bring together writers, illustrators, publishers, booksellers, educators and others for positive and mutually beneficial communications and interactions.
With the kind sponsorship of Tan Sri Lim Kok Wing, SCBWI Malaysia is pleased to invite you to participate in a one-day conference as follows:
Date : Fri, 20 November 2009
Time : 10.30am-5.30pm
Venue: Lim Kok Wing University of Creative Technology (LUCT), Cyberjaya
Official launch by Tan Sri Lim Kok Wing
In conjunction with this conference, we will be having an illustrators’ exhibition, book sales and a series of talks and panel discussions.
The Illustrators’ Exhibition will be held prominently at the busy and spacious plaza at the entrance of LUCT. Published illustrators may submit up to five pieces of artwork/print (please do not submit original artwork). Max artwork size is A3 (420x297mm). Either the Publisher or the illustrator may submit artwork for the exhibition. Prints will not be returned. Deadline for submission: 17 Nov 2009
Book Exhibition and Sales
Publishers and booksellers may also take this opportunity to showcase and sell their books on that day only. Books should be children, young adults or design books. Booths will be at the plaza of LUCT. Deadline: 12 Nov 2009
Talks and Panel Discussions
From 2.00pm onwards, there will be a series of interesting talks and panel discussions on the relevant topics including the use of illustrations in Malaysian children’s literature; addressing multiculturalism issues in children’s literature; preparing children’s picture books – the experience of an award-winning children’s book author and illustrator; and others. Entrance is free.
For more information contact: email@example.com