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.