As well as being an acclaimed artist in his native Malaysia, Jainal Amambing has won a string of international awards for his illustrations for his self-authored children’s books, including most recently a Green Island Award in the inaugural 2013 Nami Concours for his as yet unpublished picture book ‘Ambau’. Other awards include Second Prizes at the Noma Concours in 2006 and 2000; Runner Up Prizes in 2004 and 2002; and Encouragement Prizes in 2008 and 1998. (Click on the ‘List’ arrow on these links and then on the artist’s palette icon to find Jainal’s entries.)
Jainal was born and brought up in a Rungus longhouse in Sabah, on the island of Borneo (East Malaysia): a traditional building on stilts with communal space running down the middle and enclosed apartments for each family along the two long sides. His childhood experiences have had a huge impact on his art, as well as his concern that traditional culture is at risk of being lost as a casualty of urbanisation and industrialisation. ‘The world may be changing,’ he said in an interview in 2013, ‘but we do not necessarily need to abandon our culture. I hope that this culture will not vanish and will be carried forward.’
Jainal works mainly in oils and gouache. His artwork harks back to the ilmu (knowledge) handed down from one generation to the next on the techniques and crafts necessary for survival, as well as traditional music and dances and how to entertain guests. At the same time he recognises the importance of learning in a broader, more formal context, as he said when talking about his recent cycle of paintings, ‘My Longhouse Story’:
‘This series of paintings is about the ilmu or knowledge that I learnt from my community and family and our Rungus worldview. My world changed when I started going to school and I learnt another kind of ilmu.’ And as noted in the context of Jainal’s words, ‘While the world changes for children leaving their villages to attend formal schools in the cities in order to learn a new set of knowledge for survival in the modern world, it is important that the old traditions and wisdom are also not forgotten’.
Jainal has also emphasised his role as an artist not only in helping to preserve traditional customs, but also in contributing to the vibrancy of communitites in the present: ‘We must know our responsibilities as artists…not only to present art but also to encourage tourism in Sabah through our paintings.’
Jainal lives in Kudat, Sabah with his wife and their four children.
Thanks to Linda Tan Lingard, managing partner at the Yusof Gajah Lingard Literary Agency and author of the PeopleinPublishing blog, I was able to ask Jainal a couple of questions – so with many thanks to Jainal and to Linda for translating, and before we look more closely at his picture books…
- Welcome to Mirrors Windows Doors, Jainal. Who or what have been major influences on your artistic style?
Yusof Gajah is my mentor, and he encouraged me to paint in the naive style.
- What was your path to creating children’s books?
I attended a picture-book illustration workshop organised by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka [a government-linked publisher] where Yusof Gajah was the instructor. I learned a lot from there and had several picture books published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka as an outcome of the workshop.
- Please describe your studio
I don’t have a fancy studio but I live on a farm and close to nature. I can see the paddy field, the coconut trees and Mount Kinabalu. It is the tallest mountain in Malaysia. I like to paint Mount Kinabalu in my illustrations. Everywhere we go, we can see Mount Kinabalu watching us.
- Many thanks, Jainal!
Jainal’s first picture book to be published was The Proud Butterfly and the Strange Tree ((Oyez!Books (Malaysia), 2010. It tells the tale of the most beautiful butterfly in a lovely garden, who is shunned by the other butterflies because it is proud and boastful. One day it comes across a black, ugly tree and is so incensed that it sets about destroying it. The next day the butterfly is horrified to discover that the tree has grown again and is colourful and beautiful – whereas the butterfly has lost all its colours and turned black. None of the other creatures in the garden want anything to do with it, but eventually the butterfly’s genuine repentance is rewarded and it regains its colours, its friends, but not its pride… It’s a simple but effective fable that is certainly brought to life by Jainal’s vivid portrayal of the butterfly’s emotions, as well as his distinctive strong colours and patterns.
Caption: Title page illustration from The Proud Butterfly and the Strange Tree
Jainal’s book Longhouse Days (Picture Book Art, (Malaysia), 2011) is narrated in the first person by a boy introducing readers to his daily life—his family and friends, chores, games and animals—all aspects of life that are familiar in essence to the book’s readers, but also offering fascinating insight into a what it was like to grow up in a longhouse community.
Jainal won Second Prize in the 15th Noma Concours in 2006 for his entry of ‘The Last Day I Lived in a Long House’. There are notable differences between the competition illustrations and their final, published versions, as can be seen comparing the examples above and below.
Longhouse Days also has good ‘Reference notes for teachers and parents’ at the end, that older children will find interesting too. As well as learning about a different way of life, it’s a great book for talking through feelings about moving house – even if most readers will not share the experience of the boy in the story, who simply wakes up the morning after a party in the longhouse to discover he has moved to a new home with his family!
Jainal took up this theme again recently in a series of five huge oil paintings exhibited in 2013 at the Singapore Biennale: ‘My Longhouse Story’ carries strong echoes of his book Longhouse Days and is again autobiographical. It shows a boy hiding to catch a chicken; playing on a grass sled with his friends (I think, my favourite subject of Jainal’s paintings – maybe you’ve noticed!); basket-weaving with his mother; watching dancers at a celebration in the longhouse; and walking away from his village to go to school.
The Magic Buffalo ( Picture book Art (Malaysia), 2011) has a similar, traditional longhouse setting but takes the reader into the realms of imagination. It is the story of a boy called Sansarinaga who is not able to make friends with the other children becasue he doesn’t have a buffalo like they do, so he can’t join in their games. Nothing daunted, Sansarinaga sets about carving and weaving his own buffalo, which he then rides around the village with his three friends – a dog, a cat and a hen. (Indeed, the white cat, spotted dog and little orange hen that populate all Jainal’s illustrations set in a longhouse village contribute in no small way to their appeal to young—and not so young—readers.) The toy buffalo turns out to be even better than the real thing because it can float on water and slide down grassy slopes – and is it possible that it can even fly? Soon all the children want to play with Sansarinaga and his toy buffalo…
The Wonderful Sparrow (Picture Book Art, (Malaysia), 2011) is a simple folk tale in the vein of one good deed deserves another – a hungry sparrow interrupts a young farmer Usan-Usan’s flute-playing to the ‘princess of his dreams’, and once Usan-Usan has got over the shock of being spoken to by the bird, he complies instead of shooing him away. In return, the sparrow leads him to a palace, where the lonely princess is very happy to see him… If only life were so simple!
It’s a sweet story that doesn’t attempt tpo go beyond the bare bones of the narrative, but allows the rich illustrations to do most of the talking.
To finish, here are two illustrations from Jainal’s story ‘Ambau’ that won a Green Island Award in the inaugural Nami Concours 201. It’s a story about a young man Uku, who has to look after his beloved pet buffalo Ambau when it gets sick. They show we have much to look forward to, and I hope we won’t have to wait long for the book to be published…