AHMAD KHALID YUSOF’S
ALIF BA TA SERIES
RARE EARLY ARTWORKS FROM UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
BY HIRANMAYII AWLI MOHANAN
Ahmad Khalid Yusof was an art academician, an artist and an activist all rolled into one. After graduating from the Malayan Teachers College in Kirby, Liverpool, England in 1957, he joined the Specialist Teachers Training Institute in Kuala Lumpur in 1963. He then pursued further education at the Winchester Art School from 1966 to 1969. The artist also won the 1st Prize in the Great Britain Reeves & Sons art contest in 1967. Upon graduating, Ahmad Khalid went to Ohio University, where obtaining a master’s degree in fine arts in 1976. He taught at the Mara Institute of Technology (ITM), between 1970 and 1989 for which he received an Excellence Award, retiring as Deputy Dean in Academic Affairs. He served as the director of Shah Alam Art Gallery from 1991 to 1997. In 1979, the artist founded and then became president of the Malaysian Artists Association, organising painting excursions to Vietnam and Tasik Cini, Pahang. In 1994, he was appointed by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka as its guest writer. Ahmad Khalid was also part of the National Art Gallery of Kuala Lumpur’s board of trustees.
From the ‘American Experience: Malaysian Images, an art exhibition by the Embassy of the United States of America Kuala Lumpur’ book, a rare quote by Ahmad Khalid Yusof was featured in it, explaining his experiences as an artist in the Land of Opportunity. “My most memorable experience was the opportunity of meeting American contemporary artists and designers. My one-man show in Washington and as a visiting artist to Lake Placid University was an exposure in my creative activities. The group show with fellow American artists in West Virginia, Chicago, New York and Ohio widened my circle of artist friends in the U.S.A with whom I still have close contact. I took up camping as a hobby and outdoor life while in the US which made me feel that Americans in general are warm, friendly, frank and easier to talk to.”
ALIF BA TA SERIES
Known as the foremost Malaysian artist using the khat calligraphy technique in his painting practice, Ahmad Khalid broke away from the prevailing style of Abstract Expressionism of his time with his Alif Ba Ta series, skillfully developed from 1971. The two key elements in his works were the choice of khat motifs as pictorial forms and the dimensions of his pictorial method. Rhythmic optical images were in his compositions which essentially originated from the art of khat. Upon viewing Ahmad Khalid’s paintings, one’s perceptual sense is instantaneously aroused as the pieces transport the viewer into a meditative sensory experience.
Ahmad Khalid had produced some of the most spiritually sublimed paintings in a new genre inspired by the blessings of Allah in his life, including the hardship years when his father, Muhammed Yusof Ahmad was sent by the Japanese to teach the Malay language at Tenri University in Nara Prefecture from 1941 to 1945. Muhammed Yusof brought his four children along with him. It was also during the aforementioned war years that his family suffered not only from food rationing and discrimination, but also abject fear of the dark, as the American bombers pounded Japan. He was between 7 and 11 years old then. It was perhaps this traumatic experience that spurred on some of his works. Ahmad Khalid, whose uncle was the great Malay literati Zaâba, infused his works with Jawi calligraphic squiggles based on the Islamic Alif Ba Ta alphabets even before the back- to-roots exhortations of the National Cultural Congress in 1971. Such is the repetitive patterning caused by the truncated khat and often suffused with azure colours, that his works are like a visual azan and in Western eyes, a kind of optical art.
His works are a prayer in itself and it was imbued with even more emotions in works produced during the year after his wife’s death on March 27, 1989, when the loss was palpable. It was rather ironic as the year before, 1988 was a very happy time for the artist, coming a year before his retirement. Ahmad Khalid was selected for the Contemporary Paintings from Malaysia at the Asia-Pacific Museum in Pasadena in July-October 1988. He also took part in the 3rd Asian Invitational exhibition in Fukuoka, Japan, in July that year and was guest-curator of the Aseambankers Malaysia Berhad show that October to November.
ABDUL LATIFF MOHIDIN
BY HIRANMAYII AWLI MOHANAN
“The past is neither severed nor separated from the present; it exists, it has not vanished. The past is always carried over into the present. However hard I try to create a gap —shifting, moving, turning, going away from the old series to the new — the past is palpable and visible: it rises again, sinks then“surfaces again, forming a lively, fresh composition, as if to strengthen the present.“ Latiff Mohidin (1964-1969)
Abdul Latiff Mohidin was born on Aug 20, 1941 in Seremban, Negeri Sembilan and received his early education at Sekolah Melayu Lenggeng. He continued his studies at Kota Raja Malay School and Mercantile Institution, Singapore. Then in 1954, he joined Seremban’s King George V School and received his Cambridge certificate in 1959. Latiff studied at the Hochschild for Buldende Kunst in Berlin, Germany for four years in the 1960’s on a government sponsorship programme of the Federal Republic of Germany. It was natural that his early works mimicked German expressionism. The year 1969 was when Latiff furthered his studies in printmaking at the Atelier La Courrier, Paris. In the same year, he received a John D. Rockefeller III scholarship to take up the same course at the Pratt Graphic Centre, New York, US.
It was also in the 1960’s that he concurrently focused on poetry writing and continued with his wondrous prose while travelling extensively through to the 1970’s. His poetry emanates richness in imagery and metaphors. It is amazing how his expressions brought an air of freshness to the development of poetry in our country. To date, Latiff has produced an impressive repertoire of seven anthologies — Sungai Mekong, Kembara Malam, Wayang Pak Dalang, Pesisir Waktu, Serpihan Dari Pedalaman, Rawa-Rawa dan Sajak-Sajak Dinihari. He has also produced three books thus far, Garis, Catatan Latiff Mohidin and Catatan Dua Baris. His works have been translated into English, Mandarin, German, Italian, Danish and Tamil.
Through a series of masterpieces such as the renowned Pago- Pago, Mindscape, Voyage and Langkawi, Latiff has been recognised as one of the country’s prominent and most versatile painters. He has showcased his works across Asia and Europe, at more than 30 solo exhibitions. Latiff has embodied the true meaning of an artist, having the talent to draw, paint, write and sculpt. His innate talent for art and developed skills have rendered him like a chameleon, switching between genres like second nature. He continued to amaze the world by translating works like Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi, Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, Gitanjali Tagore and Faust Goethe.
Latiff’s most recent accomplishment was when his renowned Pago-Pago Series (1960-1969) headlined a mega three- month exhibition held at the prestigious Pompidou Centre in Paris in 2018, a collaborative organisation by the National Gallery Singapore and Pompidou. Latiff was awarded a major Retrospective at the National Art Gallery Malaysia in December 2012 to June 2013, his second. His art studies were at the Hochschule fur Bildende Kunst in West Berlin. He won the John D. Rockefeller III Fellowship to study at Pratt Institute in New York (1965), and a French scholarship to study printmaking at the Atelier Lacouriere-Frelaut in Paris (1969). He also won 2nd Prize (Graphics) in the 1968 Salon Malaysia. In literature, he won the SEA Write Award twice (1984 and 1986) and the Malaysian Literary Awards from 1972 to 1976, and he was also appointed a guest writer at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in 1988.
As an artist, Latiff has been active since 1951 and has shaped and moulded the art scene in Malaysia with his bodies of work. The artist’s oeuvre stretches from modern painting to poetry and literature. From as early as the 1970’s when he emerged onto the Malaysian art and literary scene with the collective, Kumpulan Anak Alam (Collective of Children of Nature) which counted amongst their activities performances and poetry recitals. Latiff has consistently found inspiration in nature. His breakout series of visual works, Pago-Pago, focusing on nature and monuments in Southeast Asia. More conceptual works followed, before the Voyages series of the 2000’s where he maintains an insatiable curiosity about the world around him.
THE VOYAGE SERIES
The voyage series, contrary to what it indicates, was created in Latiff Mohidin’s studio. When he wasn’t travelling, the artist continued to explore the world through his imagination. The essence of Voyage is the recurrent element of a stylised boat whose origin can be traced to one of the earliest drawings of the Pago Pago series, entitled, Solitude, Bangkok, 1964. Nearly 40 years later, Latiff embarked on a study of the boat as the main element of the composition, developing the first shapes in a preliminary sketch executed in 2003. The boat has become a symbol of the artist’s imaginary travels. Gestural like from the Gelombang Series, it reveals more ruminative impinges and with more glacial strokes. Voyage signifies passages of time and space, one not inhibited by time or geography, but maybe lodged in nature or evoking a time or place long, long past. So, it’s invariably given to symbols or signs or even recondite shapes, lacking in forms or even meanings, which are evident in the artist’s works. While pictorial designs in each of his series are distinct and distinguishable, it is not exclusively advanced and thereby set apart.
DATO SHARIFAH FATIMAH’S GREENSCAPE
CELEBRATION OF COLOURS
BY HIRANMAYII AWLI MOHANAN
There’s much exuberance and vibrance emitted by Datuk Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir’s works. Born in Alor Setar in 1948, Sharifah Fatimah is an important second-generation artist alongside Latiff Mohidin, Datuk Ibrahim Hussein, Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal and Dr Choong Kam Kow. Her love affair with nature started at the tender age of five, which became a revolving theme in most of her artworks. Armed with a tolerance for mud, dirt and mosquitoes, the young Sharifah Fatimah, allured by the flora and fauna, climbed trees and collected flowers from a hill close to her home. The intricate patterns of leaves intrigued her as much as the formation of pretty rocks chiselled by the rapid waters of the river. Heeding the call of nature, the artist preferred pressing freshly-picked flowers as a bookmark while other children were engrossed in the games of batu seremban and congkak. That was her idea of fun.
EDUCATION MAKETH THE WOMAN
Sharifah Fatimah pursued an education in fine arts at the Mara Institute of Technology (now UiTM), under the tutelage of Dr Jolly Koh and Dr Choong Kam Kow. Thereafter, she continued her education for the Bachelor of Fine Arts at Reading University in England from 1973 to 1976, followed by a master’s degree in fine arts at Pratt Institute in New York from 1976 to 1978, under the John D. Rockefeller III Fund fellowship. She became a full-time artist in 1973 and continued to collect a string of achievements.
NATURE, HER CONSTANT MUSE
Besides the wondrous and continuous muse that is nature, Sharifah Fatimah also found inspiration through many artists that she met throughout her career, such as National Art Laureate Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal and her closest peer, German fine graphic artist Ilse Noor. Her travels and the serendipitous encounter with things off the beaten track and new experiences invigorated the artist. She has always sought out the quiet romance of Europe and revelled in its vibrant energy which she would translate onto canvas.
Sharifah Fatimah’s favourite city in Europe is undoubtedly Paris because she appreciated its way of life and the lack of segregation there. Then there is the fact that European art is constantly improving because artists there have a great attitude towards art. Her favourite foreign artists include romanticist landscape expert Joseph Mallord, William Turner and Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. Through the travel’s and visits to Sharifah Fatimah’s ancestral home and Islamic countries such as Iraq, Jordan, Indonesia, Yemen, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in the earlier 2000’s, it birthed the bold ‘Garden of the Heart’ exhibition — an awe-striking departure from her usual niche expressions — featuring readymade textiles, embroidery, gold foil transfers and appliqué techniques.
HER ILLUSTRIOUS CAREER AND EXPERIENCE
The artist took on a museum management course at the University of London in 1987 to diversify her skills. Sharifah Fatimah forayed into this realm while holding the position of curator-coordinator at the National Art Gallery Kuala Lumpur (National Visual Arts Gallery now) from 1982 to 1990. During her stint at the gallery, she curated Ibrahim Hussein’s exhibition, ‘A Retrospective’. This however, diverted her from her destiny — art. She followed her passion, bid adieu to the office profession to become a full- time artist and art consultant. She went on to become a writer, delegate, judge, external examiner and curator in numerous high-profile exhibitions at home and abroad.
The paintings of Sharifah Fatimah and her stature were formidably established when the pieces were hung on the hallowed walls of renowned institutions and museums including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Jordan National Art Gallery of Fine Arts; Museum of Contemporary Art, Croatia; Sharjah Art Museum, United Arab Emirates; and Singapore Art Museum. The artist’s fervour for the craft and hard work was given due recognition in 2013 when the National Art Gallery held an exhibition in her honour entitled, ‘Pancawarna Karya Pilihan 1990-2012 Selected Artworks’, illustrating 100 works from five of her main series, namely Touch the Earth (1992-1996), Mindscape (1991- 1993), Joy is the Theme (1997-2003), Garden of the Heart (2005-2011) and Celebration (2010-2012).
BOISTEROUS MASTERPIECES — ‘GREENSCAPE 1987’
Sharifah Fatimah’s early works are masterpieces in their own right, displaying her artistic prowess. Each piece concocted by the artist varies in terms of aesthetics, but shares a similar foundation that resonates vibrancy, liveliness and vivacity. It is executed in her typical exaggerated, loud and contrasting colours, featuring daring streaks, blocks and lines to beautifully frame the bold-coloured fragments and shapes. The differing elements and hues in her pieces are discourses between man and nature, representing the elements that make up flora and fauna, her eternal muse. Not one to shy away from colours, the artist’s works are often described as lyrically symbolic featuring a myriad of colours.
Sharifah Fatimah’s mastery of the craft is evident in works like ‘Greenscape’, produced in 1987 which is one of her stunning, earlier masterpieces. Naturally, these early works are coveted by aficionados and are rather rare. The ‘Greenscape’ was executed in her usual loud-on-loud with contrasting colours, a beautiful spectacle featuring daring streaks. It resonates vibrancy, liveliness and vivacity. This painting commands the attention of viewers, inviting them to be lost in the wonderful realm concocted by the artist. The artist was prolifically producing paintings during her studies abroad and her talent was recognised when her etching was donated to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) by the then president of the Museum, Mrs Blanchette Rockefeller lll. As a young adult, she was actively involved in international art exchanges, organising art exhibitions of Malaysian artworks abroad in her capacity as a curator at the National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur (1982 to 1989) and later as an art consultant.