We launched Yusof Gajah's latest book, 'Elephabet - Amazing Activity Book' at Kinokuniya, KLCC on Sunday 13 Dec 09. The crowd started coming before the scheduled time and Daphne Lee, our coordinator, kept the children occupied. Yusof and Zakiah arrived on the dot! Soon Yusof was showing the eager children how to draw and engaging them by getting them to draw as well. The four best drawings received the Elephabet Magnetic Pad while consolation prizes were the Elephabet stickers. Everyone enjoyed themselves, not least Yusof himself!
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:
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.
Renowned artist and author Yusof Gajah, otherwise known as Mohd Yusof Ismail, roams the plains of human imagination to produce elephant-inspired artwork on canvas. He talks to Grace Chin ( THE EDGE the week of September 28, 2009) about the important of naivety and dreaming and living the life of his iconic Gajah characters.
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 apicture 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.
ELEPHABET and MOTHER & CHILD will be available at all major bookstores in October or contact (6012 322 0937 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.