By DAPHNE LEE
PICTURE book art. What in the world is that? The answer may vary according to your personal definition of “art”, but very basically, it refers to the visual content of a picture book.
As a lover of picture books, I have long imagined curating an exhibition that introduces Malaysians to the beauty, depth and richness of the art they contain. Admittedly, I had not envisioned using local picture books and when I was first informed of Galeri Petronas’s plans to mount a picture book exhibition featuring Malaysian picture books, I felt a degree of apprehension and doubt.
My reservations had to do with the fact that the Malaysian picture book industry is still in its infancy. If the exhibition aimed to celebrate Malaysian picture books, did books worthy of being celebrated exist? I felt that we just did not have enough picture books of sufficient merit to mount an exhibition.
In any case, I soon discovered that the exhibition would not showcase art from existing picture books. Instead, the participating illustrators would create a picture book each, from scratch. The books would be produced in lieu of the catalogue that usually accompanies an art exhibition. Most surprising was the fact that the illustrators would be given only five days to create and complete their books.
During my interview with Badrolhisham Mohamad Tahir, head of exhibitions at Galeri Petronas, he said that budget constraints were the reason the illustrators were not given more time to complete their books.
The exhibition (Words+Pictures=Book) was Badrolhisham’s idea. When he joined the gallery just eight months ago, he was given the task of planning its calendar of events for the following year (2010). It was his past experience as an illustrator for Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka that led him to consider the possibility of a picture book exhibition.
“I felt it was time for picture books to be highlighted as a valid art form and I wanted especially to show contemporary Malaysian illustration,” said Badrolhisham.
His initial idea was to showcase award-winning Malaysian illustrators. A little known fact is that six Malaysian picture book illustrators have won prizes at the Noma Concours for Picture Book Illustrations (the Noma Concours is a biennial picture book at contest organised by Asia/Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO).
Among the Malaysian artists who have taken part in this contest are Mohamad Yusof Ismail (better known as Yusof Gajah) who won the grand prize at the1996 contest; and Jainal Amimbing who was placed second twice, in 2000 and 2006.
Yusof , Jainal and another Noma Concurs award recipient, Awang Fadillah, are part of the exhibition. However, when the other three Malaysian Noma Concours winners declined to be part of the project, Badrolhisham decided to widen his selection criterion. Thus, the final line up comprises 10 artists with very different illustration and storytelling styles.
In choosing the title for the exhibition, it was Badrolhisham’s intention to present an idea that could be conveyed with a simple equation. “In general, the public is not knowledgeable about picture books,” he said. “One of my aims is for this exhibition to be educational. The first step is to introduce the most basic idea of a picture book. In their experience, words are a main part of a book, so the equation would make sense to them.”
However, I feel that while the title might make sense to the general public, it is actually misleading, being too simplistic to accurately convey what a picture book really is. In fact, the exhibition misses the opportunity to fully explore the picture book, as a concept and a physical object.
A book that contains pictures is not necessarily a picture book. A picture book must have pictures on every page, and the pictures must have an intrinsic part to play in telling the story. In the case of textless picture books, the story is told solely in pictures.
The success of any one illustration in a picture book depends on how it works with the other pictures to tell the whole story. The exhibition shows works removed from their context, and not even paired with the text that accompanies them in the books. A better option would have been to display a sequence of pictures. In this way, the importance of visual readability, consistency, pace and progression could also be highlighted.
There is at least some attempt to show the process of creating picture books by exhibiting the illustrators’ storyboards, but, laid flat and enclosed in plastic boxes, these are not clearly viewable and lack sufficient textual comment to prove helpful or informative.
I also fear that the 10 picture books produced by the illustrations highlight quite glaringly that this project suffered from a tight schedule and budget. Many of the stories are not properly developed, but this is no surprise considering the artists were given a ration of five days and 16 pages to present their finished work.
Nevertheless, Words+Pictures=Book has been quite a success, attracting up to 300 visitors a day. The variety of media and styles makes for a lively colour- and texture-rich display. Furthermore, the humour depicted in many of the pieces make this exhibition much more accessible to the man on the street than the more abstract and experimental sort of art, for example that shown at the Young Malaysian Artist exhibition, running concurrently at Galeri Petronas.
While I feel Words+Pictures=Book fails to convey the complexities of picture book art creation, it at least serves to bring the art form to the attention of the Malaysian public and also to highlight the important role of visual art in children’s literature.