The Artist Profile of Ismail Baba

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The genre of Naive Art is starting to explode in popularity here in Malaysia with Ismail Baba one of its best known proponents. It’s a very popular art form in dozens of countries with galleries and museums devoted to its vibrant and colourful style.

Naive Art is defined by the characteristics that result from not following the rules of perspective in painting set down by the “Progressive Painters of the Renaissance”. These rules in brief are: to decrease the size of objects proportionally at the distance; lessen the vibrancy of colours with the distance and to decrease the precision of details with distance.

When an artist paints outside of these standards the results seen are the effects of perspective which are geometrically erroneous giving the work its child-like look. There is also a strong use of pattern, unrefined colour on all the plans of the composition and an equal accuracy is brought to details, including those of the background which should be shaded off.

Simplicity rather than subtlety are now the recognised markers of naive art. It has, become such a popular and recognizable style and its growing importance as an art form of its own has been occurring since the 20th century. Most naive artists are self taught and work in a more imitative or self-conscious mode than other artists.

I recently had the honour of meeting Ismail Baba and my first impression was that he looked just like the stereotypical artist one thinks when a child, even having a French beret of sorts dashingly placed on his long, wavy hair. As we talked his eyes sparkled with enthusiasm and joy as he discussed when he discovered genuine native art. It was the well -known Yusof Gajah who introduced him to this art form.

“He’s my sifu,” he proudly claimed. Then Ismail related how Yusof Gajah took him under his wing and he has never looked back. For Yusof Gajah, it’s elephants that speak to his admirers at home and abroad but with. Ismail’s love for the marine world he chooses instead to entrance his viewers with fish in kaleidoscopes of colour. He also loves to paint out his memories of his kampong life as a child and feels it is importance to preserve the old way of life for not just the younger generations but for the world to see and understand.

It is his bold and unabashed use of rich primary colours though that I think best characterises his paintings and what I like the most. They are simply joyful to look at and they mimic the artist’s own exuberance and passion.

He paints on canvas blocks, and even on mundane items like the kompang, chopping block, bamboo, rocks. It is items like these that tourists or those who have a smaller budget look for. He says the “hot” sell among tourists is KL’s famous Twin Towers and he has some ready for sale.

He occupies a “home” at the Artists Colony and students from colleges come to him for classes. As we spoke he showed me his sketch book and some samples of his sketches, many inspirations from his travels in Bali and local regions.

Ismail reiterated, “In a sketch, an idea is born. Later, I can work on it and add or subtract and so it is never the same.” He insists his students show their sketches when they come to him.


He tells me that he travels throughout Asia for his inspiration drawing heavily on his time spent in Bali and other tropical paradises. I suspect that is where he sees the unusual colours he formulates into his paintings with the abundance of talent he so obviously possesses.

Please email me at [email protected] with your questions, comments, and purchasing inquiries.

Source: The Ex[at August 2011
This article has been edited for
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