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A Crash Course in “Something New Must Turn Up” – Jaafar Latiff

Self Portrait 24/89 (1989)

What does being ahead of your time mean? National Gallery Singapore’s recent exhibition, Something New Must Turn Up: Six Singaporeans After 1965, seeks to answer this question by spotlighting six artists working in post-independence Singapore who were luminaries of their zeitgeist. This expansive exhibition (which actually functions more like six solos) highlights how the diverse practices of artists Chng Seok Tin, Goh Beng Kwan, Jaafar Latiff, Lin Hsin Hsin, Mohammad Din Mohammad and Eng Tow were influential precedents in the Singapore arts scene.

Never heard of the artists before, or feeling bewildered and unfamiliar with this history? Don’t fret – in this series, we bring you through a quick crash course on each of the innovative artists in the exhibition, and take a closer look at one of their ground-breaking works.

Jaafar Latiff: In The Time of Textile

Who is Jaafar Latiff?

Jaafar Latiff | Batik Medium | Fortune Teller (1967)
One of Jaafar Latiff’s early experimentations in the batik medium, Fortune Teller (1967). (Editor’s note: Check out our article on B is for Batik to find out more about batik!)

Batik, I’m sure, is familiar to many of our readers. A traditional method of dyeing fabric using wax-resist, batik originated from Java, Indonesia, and its influences can be seen in other cultures in the world such as Africa, India and Malaysia. Whilst traditionally used in clothing, batik patterns are deeply symbolic and imbued with meaning in ancient Javanese society. Batik painting was also brought into the fold of modern art in the 1950s, with artists in Malaya and Singapore using batik techniques to experiment with freer motifs, diverse colour variations and other painterly effects.

Jaafar Latiff (1937-2007) was one such artist known for his trailblazing and inventive renewal of batik painting. A self-taught artist, at his core Jaafar was a master of abstraction, conveyed through his unique, expressive and energetic style. In particular, his work pushed the boundaries and challenged conventional perceptions of batik as associated with craft and tradition.

Latiff was also a lifelong educator who taught art in various educational institutions including Baharuddin Vocational Institute, Institute of Technical Education, LASALLE College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. As a teacher, he taught his students to freely express themselves in art, believing that this was crucial before learning its technical aspects.

Jaafar Latiff | In the Time of Textile
Exhibition view of Jaafar Latiff: In the Time of Textile. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

What is his work about?

Whilst Jaafar initially started with realistic painting, he transitioned to abstraction in to “venture beyond the limit of the familiar” into the “wide world of free expression” (The Asia Magazine, 19 Aug 1979). Jaafar felt that abstract painting allowed him to truly express his inner self, and was also a way for him to represent his thoughts about the speed and momentum of Singapore’s growth in the 1980s and 1990s.

Typically, batik would incorporate symbolic motifs or patterns, such as flowers, butterflies, birds, and animals. Whilst Jaafar’s early experimentations in the batik medium still incorporated figurative elements and stylised figures, he gradually shifted to abstract forms that drew on fluid patterns and shapes.

Batik would incorporate symbolic motifs or patterns, such as flowers
Another of my favourites by Jaafar, [Title unknown] (1981).

Created without planning, Jaafar’s works were spontaneous and intuitive expressions of his moods and feelings. He also played with exuberant colour combinations in order to create undulating movement and rhythmic qualities. Through bringing abstract art into batik, he also made the traditional craft relevant to modern audiences, expanding the possibilities of creation and reception of batik painting.

How did he make his work?

Batik is a labour-intensive process with many layers and steps – at its core, it involves painting a cloth with wax to mark out areas that ‘resist’, followed by dyeing the cloth and removing the wax to reveal the pattern. It’s then repeated as many times as the number of colours desired. Jaafar’s process was deeply dedicated to repeated experiments and trial and error – he made paintings in series, and with each series would introduce a new technique in order to explore its effect. This allowed him to systematically learn from his mistakes, refine his technique and finally attain great mastery over the medium.

Wandering Series 19/76 (1976) | first of Jaafar’s first batik painting series
Detail of Wandering Series 19/76 (1976), the first of Jaafar’s first batik painting series. This close-up reveals the high level of skill and precision Jaafar had in the application of wax and dye.

Certain hallmarks of his style include distinctive touches of acrylic on top of the dyed batik, playing with the opacity of acrylic paint and translucency of fabric dye, and achieving a sense of depth that was typically difficult to achieve with only fabric dyes. Other unorthodox methods that Jaafar adopted was dripping molten wax in freestyle splatters, lines and strokes. He also applied dye directly on the canvas as opposed to soaking the canvas in a dye bath, as was traditionally done.

In the 1980s, Jaafar’s travel and teaching schedule grew more hectic, and he turned to acrylic painting as a less time-consuming, quicker and more immediate medium of expression. His acrylic paintings, much like his batik paintings, were filled with bold, curved forms in vibrant colours, and reflected the urgency and chaos of Singapore’s urban development.

Drama Series A6/93 (1993), acrylic on canvas
Drama Series A6/93 (1993), acrylic on canvas.

Jaafar was constantly experimenting with tools and techniques, and never shy of new mediums. In 1991 and 1992, he made a brief but intense foray into 2D computer graphics, using a Commodore Amiga personal computer and DeLuxe Paint II to produce over 500 digital works in bitmap. It’s amazing how even within such limitations in computer technology at that time (at a mere resolution of 320 x 200 pixels!) Latiff was able to create such stunning works that conveyed a similar sense of movement, rhythm and colour as his batik and acrylic works.

Metamorphosis 5/92, C1/92, C4/92 and 6/92 (all 1992)
Metamorphosis 5/92, C1/92, C4/92 and 6/92 (all 1992). These works were created during the artist’s forays into digital art.

Which work stood out to me?

It was hard to choose a single work, as so many of Jaafar’s works were so beautifully made. However, Jaafar’s signature style and method is perhaps exemplified in Self Portrait 24/98 (1989). Using different tools of canting (a pen-like tool used in traditional batik to apply liquid hot wax) and various other brushes, Jaafar expressively applied wax in strokes that range from fine lines to messy splatters and bold drips. Like his previous paintings, Self Portrait 24/98 (1989) also features organic and abstract forms which undulate across the canvas.

Self Portrait 24/89 (1989)
Self Portrait 24/89 (1989).

In this work, Jaafar also boldly uses the colours of red and green to great effect, creating a heightened contrast between the shapes and the marks made by wax. With batik, the process of dyeing needs to begin from light to dark areas, where the artist would need to have the final composition in mind before beginning. He would then apply the lighter colours first and protect these areas with wax, while the darker colours would be produced through the accumulation of dyes applied.

Jaafar freestyle application of wax, as the main vehicle to express the artist’s spontaneous expression
Another work in the series that utilises the same techniques – [title unknown] (c. 1988-89).

Significantly, in this work Jaafar deliberately does not use the crackle pattern often associated with traditional batik, made by crumpling the waxed fabric before immersing it in the dye bath. In doing so, he sought to set himself apart from other painters working with batik.

Lastly, what differentiates this work from Jaafar’s other works is the freestyle application of wax, as the main vehicle to express the artist’s spontaneous expression, suggesting a deep connection with his innermost thoughts and emotions. Self-Portrait 24/89 (1989) is truly an encapsulation of the artist’s lifelong commitment to breaking the conventions of art-making, and his bold, passionate and voracious approach to life.


Curious to see more of Jaafar Latiff’s works? Something New Must Turn Up: Six Singaporeans After 1965 runs at National Gallery Singapore until 22 August 2021.

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