OBITUARY: KHALIL IBRAHIM (1934-2018) Rustic and Enduring

Khalil Ibrahim and his East Coast Fishermen Series in acrylic.

IN THE SULTRY New Delhi heat, the ceaseless traffic of humanity below was a cacophony of protean colours in an eternal flux. From a vantage point on top of the Red Fort, Khalil Ibrahim, ever cognisant of the changing light, deftly froze the scene, of figures wending their way around all kinds of vehicles on the street. Such was his finesse that he could pick out a figure from the top of the head or the instep or the derriere and consummated the work like magic before you could blink.

This was at the Malaysian Watercolour Society (MWS)’s painting expedition of India, to which I was embedded in 2000, as I was in the MWS Swedish escapade in 1997. It was a privilege to watch Khalil upclose in action both times, and on many other occasions. (Khalil was a founding member of the MWS and once held the vice-president’s and vice-chairman’s posts.)

Khalil was a natural, a true virtuoso, with an extraordinary verve for watercolours, acrylics, oil, pastels, drawings, gouache and batik (including with collage). When not painting, his left hand would never stop scratching imaginary figures, cross-hatched and in rhythmic lines of varying depths and intensity, with his Montel pen on his sketchbooks.

Khalil died on May 15, aged 84.

Born in Kubang Kerian, Kelantan, Khalil was exposed to art when he took informal art classes under schoolteacher Nik Mahmud Idris, together with Nik Zainal Abidin and Yusoff Sulaiman, in 1945-1947. He moved to Kerdau, near Temerloh, in 1957, to be with his Sumatran-born parents. (His father, Ibrahim Md Ariff, was an ulama.)

It was the strong recommendations of Temerloh district officer Claude Gibb Ferguson and his winning the 2nd Prize, worth RM500 and of fishermen pushing a boat, in the Lever Brothers Malayan Life competition in 1959 that clinched him a Pahang State scholarship to study art at the Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, that September. But first, he had an eight-month course in English at the Clifford School in Kuala Lipis.

He studied for his National Diploma of Design at the Saint Martin’s School of Art from 1960-1963, and did a year of postgraduate studies majoring in Painting, when he also started painting in oil. Known then more for his pastoral landscapes, Khalil honed his skills in anatomy and figures in London, and also showed a flair for abstracts with organic forms with standouts such as Destruction I and II (both 1965) and Abstract I (1968). On his return to a new Malaysia in September 1966, he was later slated for a Certificate of Education course at Universiti Malaya, KL, from May to December 1968, but did not complete.

Teaching was not in his plans. “In my heart of hearts, I didn’t want to teach. I only wanted to paint,” he said. Fortuitously, he was relieved of his contract without the need for compensation.

Much to the reproach of critics, Khalil dramatically switched to batik painting on his return, as it was more popular and lucrative then. He learnt the rudiments from Yusof Abdullah in October 1967, but gained mastery of the medium from tips by dye suppliers.

He exhibited some batiks in his first “double solo” in 1968 organised by Frank Sullivan’s Samat Art Gallery at Balai Ampang in February and March respectively, which also showed his England works, gouache and pencil drawings.

Khalil Ibrahim's acrylic on canvas, in the National Visual Art Gallery Collection.

By his second solo, in December 1968, at Samat Art Gallery, it was exclusively devoted to batik painting, and the outstanding work was Last Supper, with its cracked textures reminiscent of Byzantine mosaics. His third followed in September 1969.

Batik painting opened up opportunities for him. In 1969 he was selected for the Malaysian art exhibition in Australia and New Zealand, where he gave demonstrations on the medium introduced to the world a decade earlier by Datuk Chuah Thean Teng. A mini-documentary was done on Khalil’s batik process in 1969 by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He was also selected for major Malaysian art exhibitions overseas including the Sao Paulo Biennale in Brazil in 1971; “Man and his World” World Expo in Montreal, Canada in 1971; the Malaysian Art travelling exhibition in 1978; the Contemporary Paintings of Malaysia Exhibition at the Asia-Pacific Museum in Pasadena, California, the US in 1988; and the Malaysian Contemporary Art exhibition in Germany in 1990-1991. He was conferred the AMN title in 1986.

Khalil Ibrahim – Destruction C. 1960-65. 116cm x 109cm.

Khalil Ibrahim – Untitled II. 1992. Batik collage. 100cm x 87cm.

Khalil Ibrahim with the entourage of the Malaysian Watercolour Society in the painting expedition in India from New Delhi to Joelikot.

Like Seah Kim Joo, he innovated the batik art collage, but using cut newspapers with newsprint imprints to exude smooth silky textures, and dispensing with waxing and the de rigeur cracked and wrinkled look. He held a solo, his fourth, of his batik collages, totalling 22 pieces, at the Samat Art Gallery in January 1970, which was followed up by another solo of batik collages at the Maisons et Jardins in Paris in 1970. He is also known for the direct portrait in batik painting.

His solo at the Gallery of Fine Art, Raffles Place, Singapore, in December 1970 included his direct batik portraits, epitomised in works such as Sharifah and Young Girl, and works done in his two-month sojourn in Bali. 1970 proved to be a significant year, for he started concentrating on acrylic, which is quick-drying and has more vibrant colours. He also bought land for his single-storey house in Petaling Jaya.

But the disenchantment with batik was beginning to set in, as the Kelantan dye was found not to be tonally vibrant and faded easily, sometimes by as much as 75%.

Khalil Ibrahim – Two Figures. 1986. Batik with newsprint. 90cm x 60cm. Photo courtesy of Zairil Khir Johari.

Around this time, he made regular trips to Indonesia, particularly Bali, which culminated with a solo at the Balai Budaya in Jakarta in 1970, the first Malaysian to have a solo in Indonesia. There, he met Srihadi Sudarsono, who was to be a great inspiration.

He followed up with solos at the Galerie Delafontaine in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1971; Raya Gallery in Melbourne, Australia, in 1975 and 1976; and in New Zealand and the La Pagoda Gallery in Nyon, Switzerland, in 1978.

Genial and unselfish, he mentored several who have become artists in their own right like Ismail Mat Hussin, Maamor Jantan and Shafurdin Habib.

Though adept at painting figures, portraits, landscapes and sceneries, Khalil is perhaps best known for his signature tunes of half-naked fishermen, their bronzed bodies glistening in the light, on the beachfront, sorting out fish and tangled nets or pushing a boat, in a choreography of intertwining figures. It is about the hardworking fishermen and the camaraderie, and their perilous task of braving the unpredictable seas for their catches, and then preparing for the next sea venture.

They are faceless, anonymous and unsung heroes. They are shown with the musculature and sinewy arms honed through hard work, and standing with their legs stretched, for leverage and a steady pose. Colours insinuate around their swarthy skin tones in the sarong, loincloth or headscarves. The figures are sometimes rendered crisp and flat for a Pop tonality and to enhance the shapes and contours. Sometimes, the figures get scissor-cut into strips of cloths flailing in the wind, sometimes in silhouettes with thermal band of colours, and sometimes with strobes of delicate and intertwining lines to simulate movement. The play of positive-negative spaces gets a nuanced treatment in the elusive shadowy colours.

Khalil Ibrahim's watercolours, in the National Visual Art Gallery Collection.

Stoic and quietly resourceful in work, the fishermen figures are just like Khalil, who painted with the East Coast in his bones. There are also works of women, in bras or blouses and often working in unison by themselves, but equally tenacious in helping their menfolk sort nets and haul baskets of the catches. Tough and abled, they are just like the industrious Kelantanese women working in the open street market. The immodest Modesty Series have the women in the buff in watercolour and acrylic. Men or women, they are shown working with a dash of alacrity instead of dread.

Whether they are about menial activities on the beach or the beauty and pristine quality of the natural world, there is the sense of spirituality and close affinity with Nature.

The poetry of working in concert with an unspoken camaraderie, portraits of kampung people with their rustic innocence and simplicity, the nostalgia of the kampung near paddy fields or in the littoral fringes, nudes au naturel – these are the worlds Khalil has left behind. An enduring legacy.


Acrylic on canvas – RM165,200 Untitled (1979), KLAS, April 24, 2016; Batik – RM78,904 Tending Nets (1968), KLAS March 12, 2017; Batik collage – RM56,614.40 Two Figures (1986), KLAS May 14, 2017; Oil on canvas Reclining Nude RM72,800 (1964), Henry Butcher (HB) Nov 12, 2017; Watercolour on Paper – RM47,342.40 River Boathouses (1956), KLAS Jan 28, 2018; Drawing – RM24,640 Untitled (2004), HB Nov 6, 2016.

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.

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