It was a momentous time for the Johor Sketchers when two of their books were launched, just two days apart in October 2018; as this proud achievement was the culmination of much effort and commitment to their passion.
The books, Warisan Bergambar Selat Johor Barat or The Illustrated Heritage of West Johor Strait, is a joint publication by Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA) and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), while Garis, An Anthology of Sketches by Johor Sketchers, was published with the support of Think City Johor Bahru.
Formed in June 2013, Johor Sketchers is a group modelled after the US-based Urban Sketchers.
In 2013, I met the founding members of the Johor Sketchers, a group who have been meeting regularly to capture on paper, some of the most iconic scenes that are unique to Johor.
These individuals, who were already into sketching and painting in various mediums on their own, were brought together by their shared passion in capturing scenes from observation.
I told founding member, Taib Aur, that I would like to join them on a sketching outing and when the Sketchers had arranged to go on location to sketch at Kampung Bakar Batu Tampoi, I found my way there too.
This fishing village of the indigenous people known as Orang Seletar, is situated on the edge of the Danga River.
I can still remember the experience with the fisher-folk in rustic scenes of morning activities with stalls selling fish bait, women shucking mussels and boiling them in a nearby cauldron heated by firewood as children and dogs played and loitered about.
This was where I met with members like Buz Walker Teach, who was then an American art lecturer with Raffles University Iskandar, Mohd Hafizal Nordin, Eric Ng Han Meng and Ghazali Bunari, who also goes by the moniker, Tok Rimau.
Ghazali, a senior lecturer with the Faculty of Science and Humanities, UTM, is the author of Warisan Bergambar Selat Johor Barat or The Illustrated Heritage of West Johor Strait, a coffee-table book presented bi-lingual in Malay and English with a collection of impressive coloured photographs.
In his alter-ego as Tok Rimau, he was a co-founder of the Johor Sketchers and also an art activist who has a penchant for creating stories for books, comics and short films.
Warisan Bergambar Selat Johor Barat was launched in a simple ceremony graced by IRDA Chief Executive, Datuk Ismail Ibrahim and Johor State Executive Council, Chairman of Youth, Sports and Culture Committee, Mohd Khuzzan Abu Bakar.
When we met again at the launch event, Ghazali told me that this book project was initiated by the IRDA Head of Social Development Division, Suhaily Abdul Hamid, who found the Johor Sketchers online via their Facebook and Instagram sites.
After Suhaily discussed the proposed book project with Ghazali, she invited him to submit a proposal to IRDA for their consideration.
This started Ghazali on a 12-month research programme while he handpicked several Sketchers members to form the production team to work with him on this book.
Familiar with their artistic styles and personalities, Ghazali soon formed this team and they committed themselves to the task in their various responsibilities as graphic designer, photographer and videographer, among other roles.
At least 20 villagers in Kampung Sungai Melayu and Kampung Sungai Temon were interviewed to garner information about the history of the Orang Laut, indigenous people whose livelihood depended on the sea.
He confessed that it was a challenge to meet the villagers, most of whom were fishermen, and did not have a specific time when they might be available for a chat.
When Ghazali and his team approached the villagers, they were initially rather cautious and suspicious of them but after he explained about their book project with IRDA, the villagers became more willing to talk and share their stories and also pose for photos.
“We seemed to be racing against time,” said Ghazali and explained that most of the villagers were elderly and if they failed to share their memories and experiences, all these may be lost when they died.
In fact, one of the elderly villagers passed on just before this book was launched.
The Orang Laut have no written record of their long history, and this book, Warisan Bergambar Selat Johor Barat, will be a valuable documentation of this people group for future reference.
Graphic Designer, Jaie Ramlee, who worked with Ghazali on this book project, was also responsible for coordinating the production of Garis, An Anthology of Sketches by Johor Sketchers.
In this book, the eight Johor Sketchers artists featured, each sketched or painted in various mediums like pencils, coloured-pencils, water-colours or oil-paint, to showcase their observations of scenes in Johor.
I remember receiving a message from Jaie a few months ago, seeking permission to use a group photo that featured some of their members with Orang Seletar children, which I had taken and used with my story on our visit to Kampung Bakar Batu Tampoi.
With my permission, this group shot was used in Garis with the Introduction of the Johor Sketchers.
On the same page, a poignant quote from Buzz Walker read: “When we sketch the urban environment, as in Johor, we are recording the vanishing architectural history that is being lost to modern development.”
Jaie was all smiles when she turned the pages of Garis to show me the sketches and admitted that it was a challenge to maintain the book’s theme with sketches that only depicted Johor – not flowers or lovely scenes from elsewhere.
She said it was also a challenge to follow-up with the various artists so that she could complete and design the book layout. But as Ghazali and Jaie talked to me about their books, I can tell that it was all worth the effort.
Buy these books online via website: http://emall.iskandarmalaysia.com.my/my/ for Warisan Bergambar Selat Johor Barat (RM100) or from IRDA office, and WhatsApp 017-7789553 for ordering the book Garis, An Anthology of Sketches by Johor Sketchers (RM40 West Malaysia; RM43 East Malaysia).
For more info, visit website: www.johorsketchers.blogspot.my, Facebook page: Johor Sketchers and Instagram: @johorsketchers and #garisbyjohorsketchers.