Forty years ago, Mohd Yusof Ismail was a young artist building up his name and starting out in the Kuala Lumpur scene.

In fact, Yusof had yet to be more popularly known as Yusof Gajah, one of the nation’s foremost naive artists and also writer and illustrator of award-winning children’s books. However, he had already established his connection with the elephant, a familiar and well-loved animal, which has been a constant fixture in his art, books and illustrious career.

“I still remember the first book that I wrote and illustrated; it was called Tiga Ekor Gajah (1977). I received full payment for the book and as a young man, I went travelling around Malaysia,” recalls Yusof, 63, in a recent interview.

Yusof was commissioned by Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka to produce the children’s picture book Tiga Ekor Gajah.

“First and foremost, I really love this cute animal. I still read and do a lot of research on it. It is a fascinating creature and it is a big part of my work. The elephant is my signature trademark. Yusof ‘Gajah’ is a brand,” he adds.

Yusof has come a long way from his small town roots. He was born in Johol, Negri Sembilan and grew up in Singapore, where he was exposed to the arts when he started his schooling years there.

Yusof Gajah

‘First and foremost, I really love the elephant. I still read and do a lot of research on it. It is a fascinating creature and a big part of my work,’ says Yusof.

“I was also lucky to receive my education in English. In school, they taught me to truly appreciate the arts. I was exposed to painting, craft, basket-weaving and playing with plaster (of Paris),” he reveals, before pointing out that the early years have a profound impact on a child’s future.

When he was a young boy, he used to have his own scrapbook, which he pasted pictures of paintings that he collected.

“I have to thank my teachers during those years, they nurtured and guided me towards a career in art.”

Yusof says that he wanted to be an artist at the age of seven.

He pursued his art studies at Sekolah Seni Rupa Indonesia, then he went to Akademi Seni Rupa Indonesia. Both schools were based in Jogjakarta in Indonesia.

Once he returned to Malaysia in 1975, he began his career as a fulltime artist.

In KL, it took time for him to be financially secure and to support his family solely from his illustration work.

When he was offered a job at Yayasan Sabah in Kota Kinabalu, things started to shape up and he slowly built a base for his own works.

Yusof’s The Garbage Monster features an environmental message and, of course, includes the artist’s favourite subject.

“Being a creative person, I faced a lot of challenges along the way. For instance, being underpaid for my work, or not being paid at all. I also had my paintings stolen. You have to be prepared to struggle, work hard and not give up so easily,” he says.

In his studio, the artist built his own creative universe, filled with imagination and wonder.

Through the years, he has authored more than 40 books. He is also a director at the Yusof Gajah Lingard Literary Agency, which represents authors, artists and illustrators in this region.

Yusof, who is largely influenced by Paul Klee (a Swiss-German artist) and Henri Matisee (a French artist), has made full use of rich colours and fluid movement in his works. In both his art pieces and illustrations in books, Yusof has created his individual style.

“You need a strong and unique concept. A picture book needs to be layered enough that it makes sense as a fully illustrated book, instead of an easy reader or a short story,” he explains, getting into the elements behind a successful book.

“The layers come from the internal/emotional problem and the external/physical problem working together, so that when the character is actively working towards one goal, they are unwittingly working towards the other as well.

“The art also has to give us an additional layer to the story, not just show us renderings of the text,” he adds.

Yusof has won numerous awards, including the Best Children’s Book Illustration from Malaysia’s National Book Council and the Grand Prix at the prestigious Noma Concours for Picture Book Illustrations, organised by the Asia Pacific Cultural Centre for Unesco biennially in Tokyo.

His The Real Elephant, a Noma Concours Grand Prize Award winner in 1996, remains a key example of how a Malay language book has gone international, opening the doors for his works to be translated into Japanese and Korean.

The Real Elephant, which is one of his beloved children’s books.

Elephabet (2010) is another popular children’s picture book. This book, he says, is a combination of “elephant” and “alphabet”. It is another approach for him to show us the nature of his complex elephant art as well as to allow children to learn the alphabet in a fun way.

“Most of my books are based on animals. I’m fascinated by animals. I also love biology very much. In fact, biology is my favourite subject compared to art,” he says.

When he isn’t in the studio, he is busy taking his art to the young masses. He also conducts workshops on children’s picture books, and is actively involved in storytelling and various international cooperations in children’s literature.

His deep and abiding love for children and nature has never been in doubt. He also adds that, as a teacher, his job is all about inspiring students rather than teaching them about art.

“Just be yourself, be sincere and do your best … those are my secrets. I try my best to be myself during the process of creativity.

“I try to be ‘me’ rather than to be others. Besides that, I try always to put ‘local content’ in my work.”

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