Yusof Gajah — The passing of a legend

Yusof Gajah during his prime time.

The art community mourns the loss of a much-celebrated Malaysian painter, illustrator and writer, Mohd Yusof Ismail, who passed away on Wednesday at the age of 68. Known for his signature style and depicture of his elephant centrefolds, Yusof has won numerous awards throughout his career as a painter.

Aristocrat of fine art, storytelling

Today, the art community mourns the loss of a much-celebrated Malaysian painter, illustrator and writer, Mohd Yusof Ismail, who passed away on Wednesday at the age of 68.

He is survived by his wife and three children.

Popularly known as Yusof Gajah, because of his elephant-themed paintings, he is among the most unique artists across Asia and is known for his murals, installations, sketches and children’s picture books. He developed his skills since his childhood days. 

For Yusof, accomplishing a lifestyle and career in painting and art started while growing up in Johor and his schooling years in Singapore. Upon completing his tertiary education, he enrolled himself at Sekolah Seni Rupa in Yogjakarta, Indonesia in the early 1970s where he spent 24 months as a student of fine arts.

In 1975, he graduated from the Indonesian Academy of Fine Arts (ASRI) with honours.

The Real Elephant story book by Yusof Gajah.

Sense of originality 

Known for his signature style and depicture of his elephant centrefolds, Yusof has won numerous awards throughout his career as a painter. Among the most notable and prestigious awards he received was the Noma Concours Grand Prix Awards for his book “Gajah Sejati” (The Real Elephant) in 1997.

The following year, the book found its place (as the Best Children’s Book Illustration) into the National Book Council of Malaysia. 

Up till this very day, Yusof’s “Gajah Sejati” works and publication have set the benchmark for Malaysian books at the international scene. 

His book was such a success that it was translated into Japanese and Korean. Apart from Bahasa Malaysia, Japanese and Korean languages, “Gajah Sejati” is also available in English. Gajah Sejati remains a pioneering example of a Bahasa Malaysia book that has won international acclaim.

Yusof Gajah’s reputation continued to flourish as his works eventually became a sensation in Korea. As an act of good faith from the Korean government and to show how much the country appreciated Yusof and his works, he became a permanent judge in the jury panel for the Nami Island International Illustration Concours programme.

He was also given a Nami Island citizenship which is an elite recognition from the Korean government. Citizenship also comes with a plot of land, a private home and a personal miniature forest.  

In an effort to capture the essence of Yusof Gajah, New Sarawak Tribune reached out to Amy Amin, a local muralist, co-founder of the Nine Lives Art Club who shared about her experience with Yusof Gajah.

To Amy, Yusof Gajah is her muse, a personified force who is her source of inspiration.

One of a kind

Said Amy: “To speak of Allahyarham Pak Yusuf, I’d like to give you a picture … Imagine yourself receiving a gift from the government of Korea, giving you a VIP citizenship and a plot of land and a private home on Nami island.

“Now tell me, if you were that person, it would be normal as a person to start spreading the good news, am I right? At the very least, such a thing would already go viral online, right? Now, this is just to show you one side of Yusof Gajah that is simply remarkable.

“The Korean recognition, the citizenship and plot of land on Nami Island were never made public … no one knew about it! It was only after a Malaysian blogger visited the island and took photos of the property belonging to Yusof Gajah that people came to know about it.

“How humble is this man? He achieved so much but just kept things to himself. Name me one Malaysian whose been given citizenship as a gift from the Korean government … believe me, there is only one Yusof Gajah.

“Pak Yusof should have been awarded a Datukship or a Tan Sri title! For a person who has his artwork in the private collection of the King and sultans, Pak Yusof still spent most of his time with children.

“Yusof organised children’s art classes and activities and lived a humble low-profile lifestyle during his lifetime.”

For Amy, the last encounter with Yusof Gajah was in 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, near the Central Market where she had a teh tarik session with the great artist. At that time, he had returned from overseas, and was raving for a glass of good teh tarik.

Yusof’s “Gajah Sejati” works and publication have set the benchmark for Malaysian books at the international scene.

“Today, as we mourn his passing, I’d like to reminisce that day when I had teh tarik with this brilliant, elusive and talented figure.

“He asked to see my sketchbook and after a few moments, he said, ‘For any artist to grow and evolve, the best way to learn how to create art that becomes great and true is to follow one simple rule. No matter where you go, whatever your journey may be about, if you perceive yourself as an artist, you must never, ever leave your home without your sketchbook close to you. Always keep it close with you’.

“This was the best advice that I ever received in my life. 

“After he finished flipping through my sketchbook, he returned it to me and told me that I and his daughter Jaja, who also enjoyed drawing her version of cats, would get along well.  

“He then wrote on a piece of paper his house address and invited me to his home the next day to meet his family.”
I could see the sadness in Amy’s face when she learned of Yusof Gajah’s passing.

“As I think to myself and after learning about his demise today, I owe much of my passion and involvement to Allahyarham Yusof Gajah. Just the thought of him and admiring his works put me in a place of inspiration and imagination … indeed, today is a sad day for all who have known Yusof Gajah Malaysia — a Malaysian aristocrat of fine art and storytelling,” said Amy.

The writer and New Sarawak Tribune wish to extend their deepest sympathies to Zakiah Mohammad Isa (wife), Nuryusniza ‘Jaja’ (daughter), Abdul Aziz and Muhammad Hasbullah (sons) and to the family of Allahyarham Yusof Gajah.

May Allah place his soul among the righteous and grant him paradise in the hereafter.

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