Art is a silent language—I must talk and share, so I teach young people how to be sensitive and creative in their own ways. Teaching them to open their eyes and to see is very difficult, but well worth the effort. It is no use having beautiful eyes if one does not know how to perceive beauty. Business Times, 2 Oct 1978.
Singapore’s second-generation artist Jaafar Latiff was a self-taught visual artist who is acclaimed for his contemporary batik and acrylic works. Known for his innovation in batik painting, he introduced abstract art into a traditional craft and made it relevant to larger audiences. He was also a lifelong arts educator, spending most his life as a teacher of art in various educational institutions including Baharuddin Vocational Institute, LASALLE College of the Arts and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Jaafar has exhibited internationally and his works can be found in public spaces in Singapore such as Orchard MRT station and Changi Airport.
Jaafar Latiff, born on 29 Jan 1937 in Singapore, was a second-generation artist who grew up in a kampong in Siglap. His first encounter with art was through his graphic artist uncle’s art books, which he would borrow and read. With his interest piqued, Jaafar would go on to experiment with his uncle’s art materials. This way, together with the guidance and encouragement of his uncle, he taught himself how to paint with watercolours, pastels and oils.
When he was eight, his father passed away. He had to support himself and his family, selling cakes in the village school after he had finished his school day himself. After graduating primary school, he worked odd jobs in the day and studied in the evenings for his Higher School Certificate. Not being able to afford the fees for the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, he continued learning painting on his own, stealing time whenever he could out of his already full schedule.
In 1958, he taught primary school Malay, and was seconded to Baharuddin Vocational Institute in 1966 to embark on what would be a lifelong career as an art educator. He was a teacher of Applied Arts at Baharuddin Vocational Institute, teaching his students to freely express themselves in art, believing that this was essential before learning the technical aspects of art.
With his personal artistic endeavours, Jaafar started off with realistic painting, but then moved to abstract work as he wanted to “venture beyond the limit of the familiar” into the “wide world of free expression” (The Asia Magazine, 19 Aug 1979). This would be the beginning of what he would come to be most celebrated for.
In 1967, he focused his attentions on batik. He found an inspiring challenge in mastering newly emerging and difficult medium. Starting his batik work closely adhering to traditional styles of batik painting, he later on successfully brought his abstract art inclinations into the world of batik. He made a name for himself as an innovative and up-and-coming and prolific Asian artist, putting away the canting stylus used in traditional batik painting and preferring to instead focus on an exploration of colours.
He took more than 10 years to master batik, eventually adapting the technique for his artworks. He became one of Singapore’s leading batik artists, known for his vibrant, lively expressions of contemporary art that reflected the fast-paced life in Singapore. At the time, batik was widely deemed to be a traditional craft that was not really an art form. Jaafar made batik painting contemporary and relevant to a new audience, and brought it into the realm of art.
Without a studio space, Jaafar created all his art at home. He would often work on a few batik pieces at a time, focusing his attention on the next piece as a just-dyed piece was left to dry. This meant that his batik works-in-progress on stretchers would be laid all over his home, and his family members (and their many cats) would have to be careful where they trod.
Later on, he would also bring his abstract motifs to the acrylic medium on canvas, also garnering critical acclaim for the colour, energy and emotion of his art. Batik motifs featured in his acrylics, and acrylics would come to be incorporated into his batik artwork as well.
Jaafar created art freely without planning and develops his ideas as a painting progresses. As a result, his artworks are spontaneous expressions of his moods and feelings. This emotional investment is so important that he has remarked that “When people say that they like this or they like that painting of mine, they are actually showing appreciation of my moods and feelings.” (Vocational & Industrial Training Board newsletter, Jul/Aug 1989). As a whole, his works have been described as being uniquely Singaporean (The Sunday Times, 20 Oct 1985).
Jaafar has exhibited in Singapore, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong and has held one-man exhibitions in Singapore and Malaysia. His work is exhibited publicly at Bras Basah MRT station, Changi Airport, the National Museum, and various offices and banks.
On 29 November 2007, Jaafar Latiff passed away at age 70 in Singapore.