I find artist Yusof Ghani bent over his artwork. “Just give me a few minutes…” he murmurs, eyes glinting as he picks up the paintbrush. The transportation of the canvasses to the gallery had inevitably left a mark on one of his paintings, he tells me as an aside, but I half-suspect however, the 69-year-old is happy to be wielding his paintbrush again – no matter the circumstance.
“I miss it,” he agrees wistfully as he walks with me across the gallery to a nearby couch. Leaning on his walking-stick, he adds that his recent illness has resulted in a temporary hiatus from actively painting for about a year. His decline in health has been somewhat of a mystery, he remarks. It could be the fumes from the paint or the lack of ventilation from his new studio, he says, shrugging his shoulders, before adding cheekily: “But I also stopped smoking, so my friends have told me my body is not used to the sudden intake of clean air!”
Walking stick and a marked limp aside; forget the grey hair and beard with face partially hidden by a cap – his energy resonates from his slightly bent body as he waves across the gallery, telling me in wonderment: “When I walked in here and saw all of my works displayed, I can’t help but say ‘wow!’” There’s no trace of pride in his voice. He’s not talking about his talent. It’s the energy he’s referring to – of the dynamic movements that’s signature of his body of work.
One of the most respected and enigmatic Malaysian artists of our times, Yusof Ghani has taken on many roles throughout his career, including painter, writer, professor, curator as well as avid art collector. His body of work, which spans almost four decades has produced remarkable series of works showcasing cultural motifs with an abstract expressionist approach.
Series like Tari, Topeng, Wayang, Hijau, Segerak, Biring, Wajah and Ombak have electrified the art scene with their sheer energy and bold strokes. The Segerak series, first introduced in 2004 will culminate in a final showcase at Galeri Prima, named Segerak VIII: Utopia, which will be on display until August 18.
ENERGY AND INSPIRATIONS
“There’s so much energy involved when I paint… it’s like boom! boom! boom!” he interjects with hand movements to make a point. Coffee and cigarettes with music resonating in the background, Yusof tells me he worked for two to three hours every day “…attacking the canvas!” That’s the energy he needed to get the kind of expressions and movements depicted in his artworks.
“I don’t paint from my drawings. Some people study the composition, the placement of the figures and all that,” he explains, adding: “When I start painting, I have three to four canvas around me with loud music playing.” What kind of music do you listen to? I interrupt. “Rock music” he replies, grinning. “I still listen to Pink Floyd!”
He usually paints from 9 at night to the early hours of the morning. “Boom! boom! boom! It’s that kind of energy!” he exclaims. There are no distractions at night, he explains. “No phone calls, no need to break for meals – I just paint! Boom! I’ve been doing that for the past 40 years… paint and paint and paint…. I just enjoy it so much,” he enthuses.
Pausing for a while, he adds regretfully: “Now that I’ve stopped doing it for a while, I just miss it so much… Oh man!” He grows quiet for a while, shaking his head mournfully, before continuing: “I tried a couple of weeks ago but I couldn’t. I can’t sit down and paint. There must be that energy!”
When he walked into the gallery, he tells me the energy of his art reached out to him like a long-lost friend. “I recalled the moment I started painting for the first time,” he says wistfully. Memories from his travels, experiences and even his “…warisan (heritage)” feature largely in his artworks.
“My paternal grandfather hailed from India, settled in Singapore and married a Malay,” he reveals. “I have Chinese ancestry on my mother’s side.” The mixed ancestry and cultural heritage, he tells me, have had an immense influence on his art. “My colours, composition, and style of painting have a distinct oriental feel,” he says, smiling.
As far as colours are concerned, he never plans. “I just go according to how I feel at the moment. It’s all very spontaneous,” he says. “I move around with the music, just attacking the canvas. That makes the paintings work.” He has always been fascinated with figures. “They’re a symbol of life,” he says. Turning to me for the first time, there’s a sparkle in his eyes as he goes on to explain: “Humans are fascinating. Our dreams, our desires, our very essence… They’re all so captivating.”
All through our conversation, Yusof doesn’t quite face me. Instead, he looks away into the distance, his face inscrutable as he chats freely with me. There’s no need for questions. He’s eager to talk and reminisce while he faces his paintings across the cavernous hall. “The energy is palpable,” he murmurs, looking on to the brilliantly coloured canvasses in front of us.
SMALL TOWN, BIG DREAMS
He had always wanted to be an artist. “When I was a boy, I wanted to be an artist,” recalls Yusof. As a young boy in Pontian, Johor, he enjoyed watching movies in a small cinema run by his step-uncle located close to the government quarters where he resided. “I loved everything! Masa itu mana ada television? (where were there televisions back in the old days?) I mean, this was back in the ‘50s!” he recalls.
Movies developed his interest in painting to depict visual movements and a sense of time in his artwork early on. “Watching movies was free for me, but my friends couldn’t afford the price of a cinema ticket even back then,” he shares. So Yusof took to creating a storyboard to depict the movies he had watched, to his circle of friends. “I wanted them to see what I saw, so I was somewhat of a storyteller!” he says, chuckling.
“I wasn’t good in academics but I loved drawing, so I drew and drew and drew!” he adds. His father wasn’t happy, he confesses. “He wanted me to study and get a decent job.”
When he was 13, he asked his father for 10 ringgit to travel to Penang. “I’m sure he put his foot down,” I say, aghast. “No. He gave me the money and told me to go!” he responds with another chuckle. He wanted to see the world and so he hitchhiked all the way from Pontian to Penang “…to see the world!”
When he finished his SPM, Yusof knew he wasn’t going to get good grades but it didn’t bother him. “I didn’t care; I wanted to be an artist anyway!” he tells me blithely before laughing heartily. Again he turned to his father and asked him for 20 ringgit. “Where are you going?” his father asked exasperatedly. “I’m going to Kelantan” he replied.
His father gave him the money. Yusof spent three months in Kelantan just to observe life there and draw. He never returned to Pontian. He travelled all over and finally resided in the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. “I became a street artist,” he says, adding: “I hung around various places like in front of the Coliseum, the Kampung Baru Sunday market… I tried to sell my artwork to support myself.”
He eventually got a job at a publishing firm before moving to Penang, doing technical drawing. “I met my wife in Penang,” Yusof confides with a grin. Life, for a while, was focused on earning a living while raising his young family. But he still dreamed of pursuing his artistic passion.
Realising a need for a formal education, he applied to the local university. He managed to secure a place, but had to put that dream on hold once he discovered that he couldn’t pursue it full-time and support his young family as well. “I got two kids, so how to study full time?” he asks, shrugging his shoulders.
He returned to Kuala Lumpur, got a job with Radio Television Malaysia (RTM) and applied for a loan to pursue his studies in the US, to originally study graphic arts at the George Mason University in Virginia. It was there that he met Walter Kravitz, a professor who introduced him to fine arts. “It blew my mind!” he exclaims. “I discovered Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, all abstract expressionist painters who somewhat influenced my work.”
Yusof was awarded the Dr. Burt Amanda Scholarship for being the most outstanding student, and eventually graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. He continued to work for a master’s degree at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC, and had his first solo exhibition at the prestigious Anton Gallery there.
His Protest series which protested the US intervention in Nicaragua drew rave reviews from art critics, including Washington Post’s Jo Ann Lewis. “Back then, I was quite the activist. You can’t help but get passionate about everything that surrounds you. It’s not something planned, but this is the kind of inspiration and energy you derive from observation and understanding the world around you,” he says diplomatically, before later cheekily confessing to participating in protests and burning effigies outside the state capital building. “I was a passionate young artist!” he exclaims, laughing heartily.
LEAVING A LEGACY
There was no looking back for Yusof. Upon returning to Malaysia, he continued to work and coming up with his signature series, culminating in the final chapter of his Segerak series here at Galeri Prima.
He’s currently the associate professor at the faculty of art and design, University Teknologi Mara. “I tell my students to be passionate and keep practising their craft,” he remarks, adding sadly: “Art is such a universal subject. There’s not enough importance attached to it.”
Imagine society without the civilising influence of the arts, he says, and you'll have to strip out what is most pleasurable and much that is educationally vital. Take away our museums and galleries; remove the bands from our schools and choirs from our communities; lose the plays and dance from our theatres or the books from our libraries; expunge our festivals, literature and painting, and you're left with a society bereft of a national conversation… about its identity or anything else.
He recounts a story where a prominent businessman told him arrogantly that art is a waste of time and doesn’t contribute to nation-building. “I begged to differ. I pointed out his clothes, his car, his expensive watch and argued that everything he had was a work of art. Art is everywhere you turn. How can you say that it doesn’t contribute to society?” he asks indignantly, before adding emphatically: “Art is life!”
He may have hung up his brushes up for a while, but there’s no stopping Yusof for long. “I want to get better,” he says soberly. “I want to explore other themes and work on new paintings.” He grows silent for a while as we take in the sight before us.
His paintings burst with a riot of brilliant colours and movements, and under the dimmed lights of the gallery, figures twirl, move and dance in a blur of joyous energy. I recall reading of his close friend and mentor, Tom Nakashima who described Yusof as a “…transavantgarde painter whose nature is the joy that begins when music is transformed through dance and comes into being as painting.”
For Yusof, as long as there’s music in his heart and step, there’s a sure chance he’ll soon be picking up the brush again and transforming his canvas into a masterpiece. “I’ll be back… Insyaallah” he promises, smiling.
Segerak VIII: Utopia
15 years of Segerak
Where: Galeri Prima, Balai Berita, 31 Jalan Riong, Kuala Lumpur
When: Until Aug 18, 2019