In all honesty, I was unfamiliar with the batik artist Ismail Mat Hussin. I would not be too out of my depth if anyone were to mention Chuah Thean Teng, Khalil Ibrahim or Fatimah Chik. I even know Tan Rahim Zahichi—having met the artist 35 years ago at Jalan Melayu, Kuala Lumpur. I was barely 15 then. Unfortunately, the development of scholarship on Malaysian art history have always suffered from a certain imbalance, and perhaps even a degree of irresponsibility. The result of which is evidently clear when one engages in research. Artists who were less modernist or disinclined towards Western traditions were often left neglected and unmentioned. More so, if the artist happened to be self taught.

My friendship with Mr. Kwan, a retired University of Malaya staff, had opened the doors to my first meeting the batik artist Ismail Mat Hussin. The first time I met this Kelantanese artist was at the Museum of Asian Art in the University of Malaya (UM). He was over at the university that day to submit two pieces of batik painting recently acquired by the UM Art Gallery. Spread before me were the works titled “The Durian Seller’ and ‘Mending Nets’—and I was instantly taken. The artist himself was most humble and charming. To me, those paintings personified Ismail Mat Hussin, and Ismail Mat Hussin himself had given his being into the paintings—such that both were fused and intimate.

Batik painting is often seen as an inferior art, a mere product of textile or cloth making. Yet, we are reminded of the equally humble beginnings of Ukiyoe; the famous Japanese woodcut print has its origins on the common gift wrapping paper, promotional literature for kabuki theatres and 17 th century book illustrations. Similarly in Europe, Western fine art can trace its beginnings as a medium for the Church to connect with its largely illiterate followers. The teachings and narratives of the Bible needed to be propagated and artists were commissioned by kings, nobility and the Church.

All art today has descended from certain ‘humble’ beginnings or a particular practical need. It is from there that it has grown, gained appreciation, acquired respect—preserved and praised—as fine art or national treasures by its originating civilisation. From time to time, art sparks off a mania among its collectors resulting in such works skyrocketing in monetary value.

Similarly, batik art has also descended from an artform that is humble and practical. In the beginning, batik was just common clothing worn by locals. Then it began to be imprinted on finer textile, to be worn on special occassions. Batik design began taking on finer, more exquisite forms.

In Ismail Mat Hussin’s batik, however, the fine touch of his art is not meant to adorn the body but for visual and artistic appreciation.

The development of modern art in Peninsular Malaysia, especially prior to Merdeka, saw its early years taking root and flourishing in Penang. The influence of English colonials contributed much to the growth of fine art on the island. The winds then shifted to Kuala Lumpur when the bustling mining town was proclaimed administrative centre of the land. The East Coast states, on the other hand, especially Kelantan, saw minimal progress in modern visual art as compared to Penang and Kuala Lumpur.

Nevertheless, Kelantan, steeped in rich cultural heritage, had raised its own traditions as the core for its artistic base. Hence, if we are to examine East Coast artists like Ismail Mat Hussin, we shall undoubtably find that their inherent traditional and cultural legacies had guided and shaped their works.

Ismail Mat Hussin’s artistic prowess began truly blooming at 16. He was first trained by teacher Nik Mahmood of Sekolah Melayu Padang Garong, Kelantan. Five years later, Ismail began to actively produce and exhibit his works around Kota Bharu venues such as the Scouts Hall, and even ventured to other towns around Kelantan. By 1968, he began taking the brave step to immerse himself entirely in the world of art. He joined the Kelantan branch of Angkatan Pelukis Semenanjung (Peninsular Artists Movement), or popularly known by its abbreviation APS.

By 1969, he found himself on a journey far away from his rural hometown. This time around, to participate in the Salon Malaysia held at Balai Seni Lukis Negara, Kuala Lumpur. He had submitted an oil on canvas for the competition, but alas, luck was not on his side in that competition. That experience, however, flamed the fires of his soul. It was here that he had the wonderful opportunity of meeting other artists, especially his close friend Khalil Ibrahim; their friendship forged before Khalil embarked to pursue his studies at St. Martin’s, London.

The Kuala Lumpur experience had most certainly left an impact on his artistic senses. Yet, the East Coast cultural legacy that was firmly anchored within had preserved Ismail’s self and personality, as evident in his works today.

Salon Malaysia is an exhibition and competition that is eagerly anticipated by artists. Held once every ten years, the event offers big prizes and great recognition to Malaysian artists.

In the 1979 installment of Salon Malaysia, Ismail Mat Hussin tried his hand again with his batik work titled ‘Pemain Mak Yong’ (The Mak Yong Dancer) and ‘Membaiki Pukat’ (Mending Nets). Again he did not succeed in bagging any of the prizes at this prestigious competition. While he did not impress the jurors enough to win awards, he, however, finally succeeded in opening the hearts and minds of art collectors towards his art.

Since then, the batik works of Ismail Mat Hussin had begun to be known and collected by individuals and national institutions such as the National Visual Arts Gallery, Malaysia Airline System, National Museum, Esso Malaysia, Bank Negara, Petronas Gallery and others.

There are several interesting questions that come to mind when following the artistic career of Ismail Mat Hussin. Chief among them: what drives this ‘self-taught’ artist—living so far away from the hub of modern art that is Kuala Lumpur—to be so committed to his work? He has worked incessantly, tirelessly and undeterred. If one were to closely follow his career, one can trace his art progressing from strength-to-strength (even though he may have been a tad underappreciated at Salon Malaysia 1969 and 1979!).

The determination within Ismail Mat Hussin is inseparable from his sincerity.

The monument of his fine art rises from a strong foundation that lies within. It does not come from without. Truly, Ismail Mat Hussin is an artist that has long been creating from the loftiest peak of his Self.

This is clearly discernible in his series of paintings. Statements of realism on the past, the daily experience and the world around, are all wonderfully captured.

It takes our imagination to a region of ‘TENANG’ (serenity), so desired, yet so elusive. And that which we all ultimately seek, in all our own individual journeys.

The earthy tones and glimmers of yellow and white are his personal prediliction. These are colors full of humility; they are stable colours, friendly and beckon us to come close.

Ismail Mat Hussin is not all about making batik, but rather, canting the fabric of one’s Self.

Juhari Said

University of Malaya

October 2012

‘Translated from Bahasa Malaysia to English by Dhogee

(Taken from the catalogue of Canting Ismail Mat Hussin on his solo exhibition at University of Malaya Art Gallery; 11th – 30th June 2012).