“Her art is refreshing,” says beaming mum Noorhashimah Noordin about the paintings which adorn the walls of their beautiful home/gallery in Shah Alam, Selangor.
As you walk into the bungalow, you’ll note that furniture has been moved around to make way for a large scale work in progress that encompasses the length of the living room.
Sixteen-year-old artist Wan Jamila Wan Shaiful Bahri – aka artjamila – stands in front of the white canvas busily sketching what looks like the beginnings of an underwater mosaic.
Her mother is bursting with warm pride and eager to show off her daughter’s paintings, which are displayed in almost every room of their home, and she dotingly describes each one and its backstory.
There is a certain joy and vibrancy in these paintings, which are childlike and gloriously easy on the eyes. Playful cats in baskets, fish swimming happily in the ocean, Malaysiana motifs, women and children dancing, singing; acrylics on canvas, oil sticks and mixed media all blissfully combined in a burst of colour.
“She started drawing at age four,” shares Noorhashimah, 58, as we settled down in a room adjoining Jamila’s make-shift art studio. “She couldn’t speak then, but would communicate with me through her drawings.”
Jamila flits in and out of the room, and each time her mother lovingly asks her something, she responds efficiently. But she doesn’t stay long enough to answer any questions herself. She was diagnosed with autism at age two, but that didn’t stop her mother from enrolling her into a private primary school, Sekolah Sri Acmar in Klang when she turned seven.
“I told the school there was no need for her to study. I sent her there mostly to socialise and to join in the activities. The education part I was prepared to handle myself. I bought all the primary school express notes and read them, and I would teach her at home. I attended seminars and classes. I had to educate myself in order to educate her.”
The retired architect/lecturer says that her daughter enjoyed school activities.
“Especially at the end of the year when they would have a concert. She loved dancing. The teacher also loved to have her because she could dance really well. And she would come back and draw all the steps and positions,” Noorhashimah laughs as she recalls this, picking up a delightful sketch that her daughter had drawn many years ago at school.
There are numerous such sketches which the soft-spoken lady has carefully preserved, and one that is particularly captivating shows Jamila’s Maths teacher at the blackboard writing all the multiplication tables in great detail!
According to her mother, Jamila is able to do Maths and Science very well, but she’s poor when it comes to stringing sentences together or essay writing.
After UPSR, Jamila moved to a government school, as her mother wanted her to join the inclusive programme. However, she was asked to join the PPKI programme (Program Pendidikan Khas Integrasi) instead.
“She complained that it was so boring and she didn’t want to go to school anymore,” says Noorhashimah.
It was around the same time, in 2016, that Noorhashimah was diagnosed with colon cancer. “I had to go through two major operations which made me unable to supervise her for about eight months. After I recovered I didn’t think I was able to get her back on track with her school work as she had already lost one and a half years.”
Noorhashimah then decided there was no need to join the crowd and instead devised her own curriculum for Jamila. “Why stress myself out and put stress on Jamila as well, I thought. So I changed my tack, and decided to concentrate the homeschooling on a profession that would be suitable for her and that was art.”
An inside job
Jamila has never received any formal training in sketching, drawing or painting. Instead, she slowly developed a distinctive personal style with intricate patterns and detail based on her own experiences and observations.
“In the beginning, I talked to many local artists, and asked for their advice and opinions,” says Noorhashimah, who doubles up as artjamila’s manager, about their humble beginnings in broaching this vocation.
“They felt she had an inborn talent and that gave me the courage to start selling her work. I opened a booth at a local convention centre at the time. And a lot of people liked Jamila’s work … they even bought her art cards!”
Noorhashimah adds the feedback was that Jamila’s art was neither abstract not realistic but something in between. “And they loved it!”
She continued opening small booths and was pleased that Jamila was showing progress in her craft too.
“I decided to talk to more artists and move away from just sketching on paper. I even went to see the renowned Yusof Ghani and he advised me to start Jamila on canvas, as did other artists,” she reveals.
“We started from nothing. I had never studied fine art, so I didn’t know what tools to use. I would go to different artists to advise me every week and that’s how we started. Jamila loved to explore and learned very fast.”
In 2017, Noorhashimah began giving sharing sessions with the public as well as corporate organisations on her journey with artjamila and using art as therapy.
Her methods, unconventional as they were, had started to reap positive results and people were taking note.
From those sessions, she went on to co-write a book with her younger daughter, 15-year-old Jemima, who has been instrumental in lending a hand to care for and stand by Jamila. The book, My Journey With Artjamila, Part 1: From Nonverbal To Artistry, which documents their story including details about Noorhashimah’s own homeschooling curriculum, was published locally last November, and will soon be released in six countries around the globe.
It’s called “Part 1” because mum says when Jamila arrives at the next level, she will then have to write about it.
“I have targeted milestones and certain objectives, so when she gets there, I will share how we arrived at that new level,” she says with unwavering dedication, just two days prior to a recent chemotherapy appointment.
What keeps this woman going?
“I have a lot more work that I need to do for Jamila. When she is independent then I will be happy. Until then, my job is not done. So whatever comes my way – even if it is cancer and chemotherapy – I have to tell myself ‘nevermind, it’s okay’. My focus is on Jamila.”
Raising the bar
On some days, Jamila will start work at 9am and go on painting until midnight. “I have to ask her to stop because I am feeling sleepy!” admits Noorhashimah.
If someone commissions an artwork, mum usually explains to Jamila what they have asked for. She also does research and shows Jamila pictures and then Jamila is left to create her own interpretation of the subject. The results often surprise Noorhashimah.
Not so long ago, a Swiss organisation commissioned three paintings revolving around fish in the polluted sea.
“One day, I received an email from them; they had discovered her paintings on her website (artjamila.com) and they liked her fish mosaic work. They asked if she could draw something related to pollution.
“I had to do research and explain to Jamila about all the different types of pollution with images from the Internet – plastic pollution, sewer pollution, oil pollution. After that she began drawing her fish were all unhappy.”
Noorhashimah is delighted that the company decided to purchase all three paintings as well as two other works (both fish mosaics entitled The Art Of Togetherness) for their Impact Art collection.
“My hope is for her to be recognised internationally, and this is a great start.”
She reveals that it has been a challenge gaining acceptance here in Malaysia.
“It is not easy for someone on the autistic spectrum to be accepted in mainstream art. I have heard other artists saying why should this autistic girl be here among us.”
But Noorhashimah is not one to turn back because of a roadblock. Instead she continues to fight hard for her daughter to gain the merit she deserves. Which is why, on home ground, Jamila has already collected many feathers in her cap.
The hardworking teenager has participated in over 15 live painting sessions, been appointed artisan for two corporate organisations and two local hotels, she has attended over 20 exhibitions showcasing her works with other professional artists at both national and South-East Asian levels.
This year, she has already completed two exhibitions (ArtEDecor at Matrade, and Ingenious Soul at Galeri Prima NSTP) and she will be invited to participate in two mainstream International level exhibitions in April (Galeri Shah Alam) and July (Langkawi Art Biennale).
Just last week, on World Autism Awareness Day 2019, Jamila received an Autism Star award in recognition for her contributions to the autism community in Malaysia. To date, Jamila has sold 70 original paintings, including some to local art collectors such as financier Tan Sri Datuk Azman Hashim.
Recently a branch of the restaurant Absolute Thai in Sunway Putra Mall in Kuala Lumpur (which is an autism-friendly Mall) purchased one of artjamila’s Malaysians mosaics and it is proudly on display there.
Not everyone may be ready to accept an autistic artist into their fold, but for this mother-daughter powerhouse, artjamila is steadily moving ahead of the curve.
Noorhashimah, who continues to map out their journey with precision and passion, believes wholeheartedly in her child: “Jamila is already there.”