Like Art for Elephants

13 February 2017

Yusof Gajah on his illustrious career as an artist, illustrator, painter and sculptor.

For artist Yusof Gajah (born Mohd Yusof Ismail), his art and creative endeavours came to him naturally – from his artistic affinity towards elephants to becoming a children’s book writer and illustrator. He has written and illustrated over 40 children’s titles, most of which have been translated into various languages and won awards at both national and international levels. He is also an artist with over 200 exhibitions and more than 20 solo shows to his name.

Despite starting as an artist and painter, Yusof became an illustrator by chance when Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka approached him in 1978 to illustrate a book. He took on the job “for fun” – only to go on to create over 40 titles of children’s books.

Speaking to Yusof at his home studio on a quiet Saturday afternoon, it’s clear that it is unmistakably an artist’s creative space. On one side of the porch wall is an embossed elephant head sculpture: “I was commissioned to create one for a client, so I had to test it out on my own wall first,” explains Yusof. Decorated with a variety of elephant figurines (mostly collected on his travels) and walls adorned with his colourful artwork – from large canvas paintings of landscape scenery to framed pieces of elephants – his studio is also his sanctuary.

“I wake up really early and I like to read,” he shares, admitting his introverted tendencies also mean that he sometimes doesn’t leave the house for a whole week. At the sight of a small fishpond on his front porch – a perfect spot for quiet rumination and daily contemplation – we can quickly see why he prefers to stay in.

Yusof and his wife, Zakiah Mohd Isa (whom everyone affectionately calls Mama Zakiah) have three children: Jaja, Jojo and Jiji. While these monikers are just nicknames, Yusof tells us their names originate from his first attempt at writing and illustrating his own children’s book, 3 Ekor Gajah.

The apple clearly doesn’t fall far from the tree as his three children have all pursued art or creative projects in some form. “I think they have the natural instinct for art because I didn’t teach them; they inherited it and have the ‘art gene’,” Yusof humbly ponders.

Jaja, being the eldest and only daughter has followed in her father’s footsteps the most – she is a painter and artist in residence at the Alice Smith International School in Kuala Lumpur. Like her father, she’s known for her penchant for painting landscapes and animals, except her animal of choice is a cat.

According to Jaja, her inclination to forge down a creative path had a lot to do with observing her father, spending time at art exhibitions and helping out at their art galleries: “He didn’t teach me [how to paint], it was more of an observation and growing up with all the colours and watching him be disciplined,” says Jaja, adding that it was always a wonderful time when her father was around. “He had his quiet moments, painting with his music. It always amazed me to see someone so talented, calm and creative while being a father and having fun with us, his children.”

Creativity and artistic curiosity played a defining role in their household and childhood. Yusof’s sons Jojo and Jiji are also artists in their own right, with Jojo deviating completely from his father and sister’s aesthetic. While he also paints, Jojo cultivated his own style, one that’s closer to graffiti and street art. Meanwhile, Yusof’s youngest son, Jiji is more inclined towards creative writing.

Yusof may not have directly taught his children to follow in his footsteps, but he is very big on the education aspect of his work. Over the years, he’s started giving talks and hosting workshops on writing books for young readers.

“As a writer of children’s picture books, it’s less about your capability to write but more about the ideas,” he says, adding that his books are a collaboration between him and his editor. Given that, he also doesn’t consider himself a teacher, but rather a “simulator” – one that nurtures ideas and inquisitiveness.

In 2009, Yusof teamed up with Linda Tan Lingard and formed the Yusof Gajah Lingard Literary Agency (of which his wife Zakiah is the director) – the only literary agency in Malaysia that promotes picture books at an international level. As the publishing industry is very much a collaborative community, the agency works with bookstores around Kuala Lumpur to encourage child engagement and cultivate a love for art and reading.

“To me, it’s about skill, and as human beings, it’s up to us to diversify our skills,” says Yusof. “As an artist, I not only paint, I use my skills to teach, to write and I use my skills in painting to not only paint but to illustrate; I use my various skills to develop.”

He adds with a smile, “Life is much more fun because if I get bored with a particular field, I will jump to the other one.”

By Mabel Ho


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