Obituary: Ismail Hashim (1940–2013), master photographer

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Ismail’s death will doubtless leave a vacuum in the world of Malaysian art and photography that will linger on for decades to come, writes Cecil Rajendra.

Soul brothers: Ismail with poet Cecil Rajendra
Soul brothers: Ismail with Cecil Rajendra

The hallmark of every great artist is, when walking into a room or gallery, one can at once identify his masterwork.

Van Gogh, Picasso, Gauguin, El Greco, Modigliani, Giacometti and Ibrahim Hussein were blessed with this genius of imbuing their work with a stamp as unique as one’s thumbprint.

A couple of years ago, just before his Retrospective at the Penang State Art Gallery, I staggered into a small pub off Kedah Road, and, through a cumulus of cigarette smoke, discerned a large black and white print that had all the distinctive features of an Ismail Hashim piece

On inquiry, the publican’s wife confirmed that the photo was indeed by Ismail Hashim.

But what was it doing hanging on a wall, festooned with clientele photographs and postcards, in a nondescript pub off the beaten track?

On returning home, I immediately called Ismail and asked him why this photograph was not included in his upcoming Retrospective. It was a true masterpiece as evocative as any shot of the Grand Canyon by the legendary Ansel Adams.

In his usual self-effacing way, Ismail informed me that he had lent it to the pub owners for their opening and had forgotten to take it back! Though it was a unique piece, with no existent copies, he was willing to leave it at that.

Only at my insistence, did he authorise yours truly to retrieve it for that Retrospective exhibition. The next morning, we picked the print up from the pub and took it directly to the State Gallery. Unfortunately, it was much too late to include this masterwork in the catalogue; and, it was duly relegated to the third floor, where most attendees missed it.

This little episode encapsulates the essence of Ismail Hashim – a hesitant, self-deprecating, diffident genius who never fully came to terms with the enormity of his talent or the worth of his work. He shunned quotidian accolades and honours saying he had no need for them. All he required, he said, was Art – his one true “difficult” mistress.

Ismail never tired of telling the story of how we met at a bus stop some twenty years ago. And how we discovered, shortly thereafter, that we were soul brothers bonded not only by art, music, politics, poetry, and laughter, but also by the stars!

We were fellow Aquarians who jointly celebrated many a birthday bash and festival where Ismail would regale us with his wit and keep us in stitches with an uncanny mimicry of his Thai and Nigerian friends.

Then, in the wee hours of the morning, if the mood was right Ismail would pull out his battered saxophone and treat us to some soulful standards from the Fifties. Few knew that besides being a photographer par excellence, the National Artist was also a cool saxophonist.

A few weeks ago we went up to visit the 94-year old doyen of the Malaysian Bar, Mr Lim Kean Chye (surviving brother of Lim Kean Siew and Datuk P G Lim). After a hearty dinner, we retreated to Mr Lim’s residence, where after a couple of single-malt shots, the nonagenarian pianist accompanied Ismail on his sax. Both were friends of the late Jimmy Boyle and shared a passion for jazz.

By nature Ismail was a shy, private, almost reclusive person; but to close friends and family he gave his all – he stinted nothing. And, although constantly whinging about domestic demands, Ismail was a devoted grandfather, father and husband.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Ismail was no one-dimensional artist. He was well read and had a profound knowledge of literature, music, art, politics and poetry.

A founding father of the reform movement Aliran, he was as meticulous in designing the covers of their journal as he was in composing his photographs.

In many ways he was a perfectionist, always striving for excellence.

ismail-hashim-book-cover

Our family was privileged to have known both the artist and the man. And I was doubly blessed to have been able to collaborate with Ismail on a number of artistic ventures – magazine features, book covers, poster poems and Scent of An Island: The Story of Penang told in music, poetry and Ismail’s indelible images.

More recently, he was working on the Malay translation of Rose Chan’s biography; and, attended the book launch as an honoured guest, full of bounce, energy and enthusiasm.

Commenting on his art, elsewhere I have written, “Ismail’s photographs possess that ineffable ‘Punctum’ that pricks and wounds one’s awareness, leaving the image lingering in memory, long after one has stopped looking at the photographs.”

His death will doubtless leave a vacuum in the world of Malaysian art and photography that will linger on for decades to come.

But the lump in my throat and the hollow in my heart will never go away….

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