ELEPHANTMAN IN MALAYSIA

Sunday, October 7, 2012 at 1:48 AM



Yusof “Gajah”, the reference many art scholars in Malaysia are familiar with in the realm of art academia. He is the epitome “naïve” art icon.



Elephantman is here in Malaysia. He has always been here. He is Yusof “Gajah”, the reference many art scholars in Malaysia are familiar with in the realm of naive art. He is the epitome “naïve” art icon. A visual art advocate who rides the “naïve” art genre like no other has in this country. Yusof only paints elephants (“Gajah” in Bahasa Malaysia). Even if you think there are no elephants in his work, look again. It’s there. Look deeper like how you would in Where’s Waldo. A full 4 feet by 4 feet oil painting of forest or underwater scenery may seem to be elephant-less but you’ll be amazed at where the elephants are positioned (example: in the bubbles coming out from the mouth of fish). Try to look for an elephant in this  masterpiece (on the right) . Yusof intends to keep this work not for sale.

“Well, an elephant is divine to the Indians, symbolizes wealth to the Chinese and for Malays, who are predominantly Muslim, it reminds us of the year our Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. was born, the Year of Elephant of the Arabic records... " said Yusof "Gajah"

When asked about this weird habit, his answer was, “Well, all my work must have a Gajah (elephant). If there are none, those are not from my own creative mind. It may have been work commissioned by some of my clients who is fed up of Gajah. Hahaha… ”. His devotion, or rather, obsession with elephants has categorised him within the “naïve” art genre. Naïve art is a form of playful art that goes against logical boundaries. For example, an apple that is not round but square in shape. In other words, art work that perhaps a child would have thought of. Wikipedia defines Naïve Art as a classification of art that is often characterised by a childlike simplicity in its subject matter and technique. While many naïve artists appear, from their works, to have little or no formal art training, this is often not true. Yusof is one of the veteran artists who had early training at art cottage Anak Alam alongside other national art heroes such as Dato’ Johan Jaaffar (journalism and theatre activist). As mentioned earlier, Yusof “Gajah” is a reference in many art faculties of tertiary institutions such as UiTM and USM. When asked what he thinks about that, he jokingly answered, “Its an honor to be a reference. I was told that if students forget to make reference to Yusof "Gajah" for naive art, they'll end up failing their thesis. Hahahaha”.

Kak Zakiah, his wife, used to be a civil servant in the Transport Department, has opted to retire early from civil service and decided to be the marketing mind for Yusof. She says Yusof lack pricing strategy for his valuable art works. The combination of the two, creative and commercial values have resulted in an entrepreneurship that promises economic value in what Yusof "Gajah" does. His oil/acrylic/water colour paintings, wood sculptures, pewter pieces, illustrated story books along with other merchandises (of Gajah) such as mugs and tshirts has allowed them to enjoy a steady source of income not only locally but from foreign countries such as Korea, Scandinavia and Indonesia. He is also famous amongst the foreign consulates/ambassadors in Malaysia. To add, his wife, Zakiah has also started to do Batik (of Gajah as well).

“Its an honor to be a reference especially when students forget to make reference to me, they ended up failing their thesis. Hahahaha” said Yusof "Gajah" jokingly

As a mark of recognition, Yusof received a gold medal for the 1996 Grand Prix Award for Asia Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO. His success was on the back of his creative illustrative kids story book series that feature various animal caricature characters including, of course, a Gajah. I was privileged enough to be invited to his house (also his studio) where he shared with me many of his work that he dearly kept as his own collection as well as those still in progress for his clients. Yusof tends to shy away from galleries. His clients come to his house to buy his work. However, he aspires to own his own gallery (which will materialize soon in Plaza Damas) and also have his own museum.

In my conversation with him, I asked, “Why Gajah? Why not Cat? Or something close to the Malaysian story such as Tapir, or Tigers?”. He said, “Well, an elephant is divine to the Indians, symbolizes wealth to the Chinese and for Malays, who are predominantly Muslim, it reminds us of the year our Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. was born, the Year of Elephant of the Arabic records. By the way, my son has taken cat as his “naïve” icon”. I then joked with him, “Can I then use Cacing (worm)? So I can become Mat Cacing”. He suggested, with sincerity, “Why not Mat Nombor (Numbers)? After all you are an accountant”. In my mind, what a brilliant idea! I might just do that (painting work involving numbers).

It so happens that that day was my birthday and as a result, Yusof “Gajah” gave me a birthday present, a pewter necklace with an elephant pendant. Brilliant! What an honor to receive an iconic present from an iconic artist, Mr Yusof “Gajah”. Before I left, my eyes gravitated towards a very powerful piece on his wall. It was an abstract of an elephant in purple and orange from Yusof’s Fun Series. Purple is playful and orange is passionate (for me that is). The marriage of the two colours gave birth to a “Sexy” feeling. What is more appropriate is that the company I work for has purple and orange as its corporate colours. So, as it was preordained to happen, that piece was acquired by the company as a gift to YAB Prime Minister Najib Razak during the launch of the company (MyCreative Ventures Sdn. Bhd.) - an honour for the man they call Yusof “Gajah”.



As a mark of recognition, Yusof received a gold medal for the 1996 Grand Prix Award for Asia Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO. 

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