by Peter Duke
In 2010, I was asked by Linda Lingard, owner of Oyez books to interview Yusof Gajah and write the introduction for two of his new books, Mother and Child and Elephabet. When I met Yusof, I wasn’t sure what I would find to talk to him about. I’m English and my upbringing was very English, and I studied mechanical sciences and English at Cambridge and wasn’t that fond of elephants. Yusof, on the other hand grew up in Singapore, loved elephants and was an artist. In fact, his father sent him to Yogyakarta to study agriculture, but instead Yusof went down the road and joined the Sekolah Seni Rupa, Yogjakarta, the famous art college.
From the moment we started talking we clicked. We shared the same sense of humour, he was patient with my lack of knowledge about naive art, and when I told him I had a painting by a famous Indonesian artist Widayat, that sealed it. Yusof was a student of his and was a great admirer of his work. After that meeting I studied the content of the two books Elephabet and Mother and Child and discovered there was a lot of beauty in the way Yusof had created the illustrations of elephants in these two books to deliver important messages. In Elephabet, he skilfully wound the elephants into the letters of the alphabet and in the book, as opposed to the flash cards, there were many of his whimsical views of life. Mother and Child is a very different book, it is actually a collection of his artwork that he painted when one can only describe him as a starving artist. His breakthrough came when a collector bought the originals of these pictures and from that time he began to grow in his fame as an artist.
I had never met his wife Zakiah until one evening Linda invited Yusof and Zakiah and myself to dinner at an Italian restaurant in Bangsar. That was the start of a long friendship. Yusof and Zakiah were such an engaging couple, she is an industrious and amusing woman as well as being dedicated to promoting Yusof’s work.
After that evening, Linda and I often used to visit their home in Gombak, north of Kuala Lumpur and occasionally I was privileged to watch Yusof painting while I was there. I don’t think I truly appreciate naïve art as I am more comfortable with Turner, Whistler Manet, and Pissarro etc. But when I watched Yusof creating a large landscape full of elephants and other jungle creatures I began to understand the depth of his work and the beauty of his creation.
Our relationship went from strength to strength, and we met regularly. The next important moment in my relationship with Yusof came at an AFCC (Asian Festival of Children’s Content) annual meeting in Singapore around six years ago. Yusof was booked to give a talk on his art and the way he used his skills to create children’s picture books. I was asked to be his moderator and as we were good friends it went very well with a minimum amount of rehearsal. But I learned something about Yusof at that presentation which I didn’t know until that moment, it was how much time Yusuf spent with seriously ill children many of them dying from cancer in hospitals in Kuala Lumpur. I knew he had written and illustrated a book called Chemophant sponsored by a mother whose child had died from cancer. I knew he was great with kids as I had often watched him hold children spellbound as he turned their scribble on a large sheet of white paper into an elephant. But it was at that moment at AFCC that I saw a completely different side to Yusof. He was a very giving and concerned person. I’d always thought of him as a good artist who could be a bit rough with those who he was teaching. But when it came to being with children and working with seriously ill children, I realised he had a deep care for them.
I have skipped over his time as a curator at the University of Malaya School of Art and his international recognition with collectors in Germany and Norway among many other noteworthy events. I wanted to focus on the man I knew. I last saw Yusof in March 2021 when there was a short break in MCO lockdowns before the COVID-19 pandemic started in earnest again. I left Malaysia in April and returned to Singapore and although I haven’t able to meet up with him since then, I have sadly heard from Linda of his slow decline in health. He was always a strong person, and despite his crippling arthritis the last time I saw him he was as cheerful as ever.
My heart goes out to Zakiah, who will be deeply saddened by the loss of her husband. I know she worked tirelessly for him and with him over the years supporting him in his art, supporting him when he first started out with three very young children, supporting him in his sickness and now he’s gone. I hope to see Zakiah again in the near future now the borders are reopening and join her in remembering a departed dear friend.
Peter Duke is Chairman of Oyez!Books and writes under the name Worthington