Drawings that tell uniquely Malaysian stories

Drawings that tell uniquely Malaysian stories

Rahel Joseph, gallery director of ILHAM, reflects on the power of visual storytelling through the works of Malaysia’s favourite cartoonist, Lat.

By Rahel Joseph

There are many great artists in Malaysia but no one has captured the imagination of the Malaysian public as vividly or as wholeheartedly as the cartoonist Datuk Mohammad Nor Khalid, better known as Lat. 

What is it about Lat’s cartoons that makes them so quintessentially Malaysian? There have been many that have attempted to take up the mantle since his retirement but no one has come close. He is neither a propagandist nor an activist – just a master storyteller whose narratives combine self-deprecating humour, honesty, and a sharp wit that is modified by a natural empathy and compassion for the other. He takes our Malaysian idiosyncrasies, our frailties and imperfections, and makes them somehow palatable, even lovable. At the same time, he coaxes us into laughing at ourselves, an ability that seems to sadly, be a thing of the past.

No other Malaysian artist is as well-known as Lat. His cartoons first appeared in the New Straits Times in 1974, and nearly every day for over two decades after that, his art found its way into households all over the country.

What is particularly interesting about Lat is that he appeals to all Malaysians, not just a particular community. His book Kampung Boy which is an autobiographical account of his own life growing up in the kampung is rooted in the Malay rural experience and remains authentic and true; yet like all good stories, it has a universality that goes beyond community or race. We recognise the camaraderie that exists between him and his friends, the Meor brothers – we have all played with friends from the neighbourhood and whether it involved exploring the rivers in the kampung, or as in my case, exploring the empty houses in the university quarters where I grew up – we all recognise that simple joy of running wild in those glorious hours after school and before bedtime.

One of my favourite books of all times is Lat’s Town Boy, again an autobiographical account of his life in Ipoh after he leaves the kampung with his family. You can sense his alter ego, Mat’s excitement as he ventures into the new incredible playground that urban life affords him. One of the best things about Town Boy is Mat’s relationship with Frankie, his Chinese best friend.

While visiting Frankie’s home to listen to records during lunchtime, he is presented with the one halal food item in the house, a kaya pau. It’s a simple gesture, evoking a gentler and more humane time when eating together at each other’s homes was not unusual and when tolerance and compromise were the norm.

There is one drawing in Town Boy that I would like to highlight. It’s a wonderful drawing full of rich, humorous details, capturing in one instance so many different narratives. In this scene set at the Ipoh railway station, Mat has come to say goodbye to his friend Frankie who is leaving town to study abroad. We see Frankie in the train saying his last goodbyes to his family, while Mat is desperately waving to him through the platform gate. But Lat has managed to include so many other narratives alongside the main story of Mat saying goodbye to his best friend.  He has captured so perfectly the theatre of the railway station, with all its bustle and busyness as well as the human drama that is often played out at sites of departures and arrivals.

We see two nuns on the platform saying goodbye to their fellow novice, a couple carrying an incongruously long carpet, a soldier with a knapsack and an impressive moustache walking by with his fellow cadet, a Buddhist monk with a fan and an eye on the crowd, a harassed mother searching through her bag while her son looks on, a well-dressed man in a songkok marching importantly, pipe in mouth, carrying some delicious looking durians, an enthusiastic young boy hawking packets of nasi lemak. It is a truly Malaysian scene which leaves you with so many questions as to who these characters are and the lives they lead

Lat is a master in his ability to observe people and capture them to true likeness in his drawings.  With just a few strokes of his pen and a masterful observation of anatomy, he is able to tell stories through the way he draws his characters’ arms and legs, how he emphasizes their slouched shoulders, the nonchalant tilt of their heads, the swagger in their step.

Lat’s stories are wonderfully layered with a truthfulness and a universality that go beyond narrow boundaries of race and religion. 

As an artist, his greatest strength is to create work that is expansive enough to accommodate multiple narratives and stories that reflect and feed into this complex, complicated polyglot nation we call home.

All images used with permission from Datuk Lat.

Rahel Joseph is gallery director of ILHAM Gallery, Kuala Lumpur. A published author, she has written for the stage and print media including the New Straits Times and The Nut Graph.