Friday, February 20, 2009

Farewell, Ibrahim Hussein

Yesterday, we buried one of Malaysia's most prominent artists, Datuk Ibrahim Hussein.

Suhaimi and I were among the first at the cemetery, and we watched the mourners file in one by one to pay their last respects to a man who, in his lifetime, epitomised dedication and hard work in his art. I recognised his brothers, Datuk Abdullah Hussein and Tan Sri Ismail Hussein, Datuk Shahrir Abdul Samad, Datuk Elyas Omar, A. Samad Said, and Tan Sri Sanusi Junid, as well as art collectors Pakharuddin and Farouk, and the Pelita Hati artists, among those present.

I felt it was a pity that not many of Datuk Ibrahim's peers were there, but perhaps they were by his side at the hospital or home earlier.

The funeral rites were carried out amid silent weeping and swollen eyes. The afternoon heat dissipated quite suddenly for a few moments as the air cooled under the threat of some rain clouds, but the moment passed just as quickly without precipitation.

Throughout, and actually since I received the breaking news at dawn yesterday from Pakharuddin, who has to be given credit for being the eyes and ears of our art industry and the people populating it, I had been reflecting on my limited encounters with Datuk Ibrahim.

One of my strongest memories of him is of the grand appearance he made at the Persatuan Angkatan Pelukis Malaysia meeting at Balai Senilukis Negara in 1982. I was a student at the time, hanging out towards the back of the hall and listening to the panel discussions. Suddenly, Ibrahim Hussein arrived, making quite an entrance. The discussion ceased abruptly for a few seconds as everyone in the hall turned to take in this short and stout figure of a man sauntering in with no lack in style!

Looking back, I suppose you could say that Ibrahim Hussein's appearance at the meeting created a similar stir as his artworks -- and the prices they fetched-- did in the Malaysian art industry. Very few artists of the time dared to price their paintings as high as Ibrahim did. And the issues he dared confront through his art made him out to be a provocative -- some would even say audacious -- artist.

During the meeting, some unflattering remarks were made about "certain artists" who sold their works far above the market price. It seemed clearly directed to Ibrahim, who, during the question and answer session, didn't hesitate to walk up to the mike and state his mind on the matter.

He criticised the Malaysian artists for their tendency to keep works to themselves, and for always flocking together to complain instead of venturing outside of their comfort zone to reach out to the public. I talk about my art to everyone, from business people to gardeners, he said. The problem, he said, was that artists felt as though they were special people, direct from God. Artists, he said, need to work hard and not hope for fortunes to fall into their laps.

His little speech left everyone speechless after that. It would be the first and last time he ever went to an all-Malaysian artists gathering.

His opinions probably offended the feelings of some people, but whether you like to admit it or not, there was a whole lot of truth to what he said.

His words have stayed with me through the years.

I remember Ibrahim Hussein for more than this, too. I remember him for his My Father and the Astronaut. I remember him for his Senyum SeOrang Monyet. I remember him for his presence in the Malaysian and overseas art industry. And how he boosted the morale and confidence of my generation to continue our work and commitments to fine art.

Many people recognise Ibrahim Hussein for his groundbreaking efforts in elevating the standards and value of Malaysian art. For that, we must give him credit. He influenced many people and inspired even more.

To know that Ibrahim Hussein no longer walks among us, and that we will never see a new Ibrahim Hussein piece of painting, that is a real shame.

To Ibrahim Hussein, I bid you farewell. Semoga rohmu dicucuri rahmat.

To his wife, Datin Sim Hussein, and daughter Alia Ibrahim, I offer my deepest condolences.

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