A TRUE MALAYSIAN MASTER
We celebrate the long-spanning career of one of Malaysia’s greatest artists, Khalil Ibrahim
Khalil Ibrahim is indeed a legendary icon in the Malaysian art scene. Born in 1934 in Kubang Krian, Kelantan, he is by far one of the few Malaysians who received a state scholarship to attend art training at the prestigious Central St Martins School of Art and Design in London. Throughout his long career, which spans over 50 years, Khalil has held a number of solo and group exhibitions in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Switzerland. His masterful skills in drawing, watercolour and acrylic, are in styles that move from the almost real to the almost abstract.
Khalil’s preference for the human figure has led him to create iconic images of men and women in the East Coast Malay fishing villages against stark backgrounds of blues and greens and watercolour landscape of villages. Today, the 79 year-old artist continues to paint to his heart’s desire in his home cum-studio in Petaling Jaya. KL Lifestyle Art Space is set to release the long awaited book, The Art Journey of Khalil Ibrahim. The book pays homage to his journey as an artist and the amazing artworks he has created over the span of his career.
How it all began
Khalil is well known for his amazing watercolour paintings, delicate batiks and intriguing acrylics. When he was a young boy, his artistic talent began with a passion for making wayang kulit. In his earlier days as a teenager, he would draw on a big leaf and make the wayang kulit with the addition of cardboard, to play with his friends. It was a big thing for Khalil as there were competitions and different shows almost every month. His mother disapproved of his newly found passion and his father wanted him to be a teacher. While most of his friends continued to pursue their higher education in the Middle East, Khalil’s path took a different turn instead.
He began attending art classes held every Sunday, in Kota Bharu and it was here that he learned the fine art of watercolour and painting techniques from art inspector, Nik Mahmud Idris. Khalil was driven by his own creativity and the art pieces that were purchased by army officers and civil servants. He painted in his spare time from primary school teaching and he would travel from Kelantan periodically to sell his work at the annual MAHA (Malaysian Agriculture and Horticulture Association) trade fair.
The Temerloh House
Khalil had originally planned on going to Bandung, Indonesia, to further pursue his studies in the arts but his application was unsuccessful. That did not set him back one bit as he achieved his artistic breakthrough some years later in Pahang around 1957. It was during this period that the artist was first introduced to the District Officer, Claude Gibb Ferguson, previously a District Officer in Perak.
Ferguson got on very well with the locals as he spoke good Malay. Ferguson invited Khalil to come over to his house and later asked him to paint an image of it, in Temerloh, Pahang. It was not an easy request for Khalil to complete, but he successfully completed it and other commissions followed suit. He eventually adopted the Temerloh Rest House as an impromptu art gallery, due to the amount of travelling dignitaries who had the tendency to stop over at the Rest House, and would view his work there. This period proved to be a significant one for Khalil as his time was filled with the creation of new artworks.
Some of the artworks he created in 1957 include Bachok and Pahang River, the Pahang Series, consisting of fishing boats, the river and thatched houses. One of his most notable commissions in that year was the task to paint the portrait of the Sultan of Pahang – Sultan Abu Bakar Ri’aytuddin Al-Mu’adzam Shah, in conjunction with the Sultan’s birthday. With the guidance of Ferguson, Khalil studied English at the Clifford School, Kuala Lipis to gain the necessary language skills for him to continue his studies art in England. While studying at the Clifford School, Khalil submitted some of his works to enter The Malaysian Way of Life – the Lever Brothers art competition, and received the second prize in that competition.
Khalil was sponsored by the Pahang state government to continue his studies at the prestigious Central St. Martin’s School of Art and Design in London and in the same year, the infamous art critic Clement Greenberg visited London and Cornwall, to check out contemporary works of art. The next year, British pop artist Peter Blake joined St. Martin’s and lectured in the school at the same time Khalil was studying there. David Hockney used to drop by to give the budding art students lectures, and Khalil attended some of those sessions. During his stint there, he continued to study English in evening classes and met the woman who was to be his future wife, Judith Hürzeler in 1963.
Khalil’s ‘English’ works revealed a comparatively different style from his earlier landscapes and portraits. Influenced by his peers, lecturers, and his foreign surroundings, the early 1960’s saw him experimenting with abstraction in works like Destruction and Destruction II and Abstract I.
There are distinct influences of Italian Futurism, both in the movement of the subjects and with his works for In Geese and the Figurative Study. His interest in Futurism was short lived when he began painting his own self-portrait and the Temerloh girl in acrylics. His love for Expressionism is clearly portrayed in the Portrait of a Balinese Lady. His interest in painting abstraction surfaces in other ways throughout his career as an artist.
Over the length of his artistic career, Khalil’s abstraction was overshadowed by his other, more naturalistic works when he produced paintings such as Pembicaraan III in 2002,Velocity IV in 2003, Tangtu and Pura in 2003, Padang Galak and Pabean in 2004 and the intriguing ink on paper set of images from Bali, Indonesia, The Spirit of the East Coast and Sanur. After completing his course for the National Diploma of Design in Fine Arts from St. Martin’s in 1966, Khalil continued his education at the University of Malaya and became a qualified art teacher. It was during this time that he painted an oil study reminiscent of the Post-Impressionist works of Paul Gauguin – Temerloh Girl. This work is an acrylic, on board, which has all the feel of Gauguin’s oil paintings from the South Seas.
At this point, he had already become close friends with Ibrahim Hussein, while visiting Malaysia Hall, in Bryanston Square, London. Khalil also met another famous painter and poet, at the University of Malaya, which was none other than Latiff Mohidin. In 1968, he was given the opportunity to meet Frank Sullivan, former press secretary to Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj.
Sullivan was a champion of the arts in Malaysia and was instrumental, along with the prime minister, in the creation of Malaysia’s National Art Gallery back in 1958. Sullivan, the first administrator of the National Art Gallery, had set up the Samat Art Gallery in 1966 with his partner Samat Silat, and encouraged Khalil in his painting and batik images. Sullivan was mainly responsible for Khalil’s first solo exhibition at the Samat Art Gallery.This followed with numerous solo exhibitions including in Jakarta, the Gallery of Fine Art, Singapore and again at Samat Art Gallery. The following year in 1971, he hosted an exhibition at the Galeries De la fontaine in Geneva and two years later at the Raya Gallery in Victoria, Australia. In 1997, Khalil had his works touring New Zealand as part of a University of Malaya exhibition. Khalil has drawn to depict the hard-working lives of ordinary people influenced by his East Coast of Malaysia upbringing. From his earliest works of Pahang fishing villages, thatched roof dwellings, fishermen hauling their catch, to more enigmatic and stylish beach works, he is definitely in touch not only with his own humble origins but with the heart and soul of the country he loves.
He is one of the few Malaysian contemporary artists who have successfully worked using batik as a medium. Gadis, a portrait of a young girl and Kelantanese, a portrait of a young boy, both painted during the same period in 1968, are good examples of Khalil’s batik works which were produced upon his return to Malaysia. The influences of the early years can still be seen in Pantai Timur II painted in 1985, a very provocative and strong piece using muted colours, but demonstrates the artist’s command of line and detail, in his chosen medium.
Due to his affiliation with MAS (Malaysian Airlines) in the 1980s, Khalil became actively involved with the Malaysian Watercolour Association, which had held numerous successful exhibitions around Asia, including Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, Germany, Indonesia, New Zealand and Korea. He continued producing watercolours like Beach Vista in 1990, Sunset in 1991, Berserah in 1994, Kota Bharu and the East Coast Series in 1995. In his brief look at Malaysian art, in Modern Malaysian Art – from the pioneering era to the pluralist era (1930s – 1990s), Dr Muliyadi Mahamood suggests that, “The early 1990s also witnessed a revived interest in the watercolour medium that was first introduced in the 1930s”. He goes on to remark that Khalil Ibrahim was amongst
the ‘serious’ water-colourists who used ‘spontaneous brushstrokes’ and ‘many thin and transparent layers of colour through the wash technique’. This can be seen in Khalil’s Turneresque and calmly russet-hued Highland I painted in 1993.
The past two decades have seen Khalil produced sets of brightly hued watercolour images, acrylics and oils, which have updated his familiar theme of East Coast beach and young girl series. In the last few watercolour works, the viewer is treated to the gaiety of the girls’ sarongs and the brightness of their lengthy Malaysian blouses, while they stroll or stand on the beach. In more recent times, Khalil has exhibited around Malaysia and has had a number of his works held both in private and public collections including Hilton Kuala Lumpur, Maybank, PETRONAS, Bank Negara, Khazanah Nasional, Bank Bumiputra, Arab Malaysian Bank, National Heritage Board of Singapore and Singapore Art Museum, and in KL Lifestyle Art Space.