In November 2021, the Malay Heritage Foundation (MHF) announced its first Hadiah Warisan (Heritage Prize) recipient at the inaugural Hari Warisan (Cultural Heritage Appreciation Day) organised by the foundation. Guest-of-Honour Madam Halimah Yacob, President of the Republic of Singapore, presented 77-year-old Singaporean Malay artist Idris Mohamed Ali, with an award in recognition of his artistic excellence, creativity, and commendable achievement to the Malay arts and heritage sector for Visual Arts.
Idris Mohamed Ali, affectionately known as “Pak Idris” among the arts community, is a self-taught and award-winning artist who has been painting in watercolour for more than 50 years. Most recently, Pak Idris made a big contribution to our national heritage by painting Singapore’s street scenes and landscapes of old Singapore which are significantly important to our national heritage as it provides unique visual documentation.
MHF had the pleasure of interviewing Pak Idris to find out more about his passion, artistic journey and his thoughts on the future arts scene in Singapore.
Q: You started painting at the young age of 10. What sparked the interest to pursue this and how did you sustain this strong momentum for more than 5 decades?
I became interested in drawing when my father gave me my first comic book, which was from the Lone Ranger series. After reading it, I started to trace the figures and redrew them many times. While growing up in Kampong Wak Tanjong, where Arwah (the late) Cikgu S. Mohdir also lived, I saw him painting, which made me want to learn to draw more and paint. For one to sustain this long, one needs to have a strong interest in art, not be afraid to work hard and don’t give up.
Q: It was not an easy journey for you as you could not afford formal art training. How did you acquire the skills needed to be the watercolour artist you are known for today?
When I was 15, I attended art classes at Sims Avenue Community Centre. I learnt under S. Mahdar. When he left for Malaysia, I learnt under Mas Ali Sabran at the CC. It cost me 10 cents per lesson, so I am thankful for these classes as I could not afford formal art school.
I also learnt from books, practising and observation. When I joined Angkatan Pelukis Aneka Daya (APAD) or Association of Artists of Various Resources in the early 1960s, I sought advice from senior artists-members, such as Cikgu C. Mahat, who was very skilled in watercolour. Then, I was asked to teach at APAD classes. Teaching also helped me to hone my skills further.
Q: As a pioneer member of APAD way back in 1962. Could you share with us the roles that you played since the formation of APAD?
I was elected into the Management Committee only in the early years. But it was probably my teaching role in APAD that had an impact on my students and all those I taught.
Q: What are some of your memorable paintings? How many exhibitions have you been involved in?
I don’t have any memorable paintings; I would say all are my favourites! I have participated in more than 80 exhibitions, out of which around 25 are with Maya Gallery, which has represented me for close to 10 years. They organised 2 of my solo shows, helped promote and sell my artworks, and gave me a platform to be involved in many activities like live portraits, workshops and artist talks. I am grateful to Masturah and Jeffrey for supporting many Singapore artists like me.
Q: You are known to paint Singapore’s street scenes and landscapes, often choosing those places off the beaten track. What are some of the things that you look out for in these places before you decide to paint them?
I am drawn to places that are beautiful in my eyes.
Q: Aside from painting urban scenes, you are also known to paint portraits. You were once commissioned to do a portrait of Singapore’s former President Mr. Wee Kim Wee and his wife. What are the challenges of painting a portrait compared to painting street scenes and landscapes?
Painting portraits and landscapes have the same challenges and give me the same satisfaction. As such, I enjoy painting both.
Q: How long does it take to complete a painting and which type (street scenes, landscape, abstract, portrait, etc) is your favourite?
It depends on how detailed the scene or portrait is. As mentioned, all types of paintings are my favourites.
Q: What does this Anugerah Hadiah Warisan (Heritage Prize Award) mean to you?
I am proud and happy to receive the first Anugerah Hadiah Warisan. For me, it affirms my work of close to 60 years as an artist. I am thankful to Maya Gallery for nominating me.
Q: What are your hopes and aspirations for the arts scene in Singapore, especially for the local artists and practitioners? Any advice for those young Singaporeans who are considering a career in the art scene?
I hope the art scene in Singapore will be better, with more support, especially from the Malay community. For young Singaporeans who are considering a career in the art scene, I encourage them to pursue their interest, work hard and don’t give up.
Q: Describe yourself in three words.
- Minat (Passionate)
- Berusaha (Motivated)
- Tak putus asa (Never gives up)
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