Ibrahim Hussein, who rose from poverty in a rural Malaysian village to become one of his country’s best-known artists, died in Langkawi, Malaysia, on February 19 at the age of 72 as a result of a heart attack. The inventor of a technique called “printage,” which combines printing techniques and collage, Hussein produced works that ranged from the political to the colorful and decorative.
During his long artistic career, Hussein, known to his close friends as Ib, was the beneficiary of much friendly largesse and the recipient of numerous prizes and honors. In an accident at age eight, he lost sight in his right eye. Undeterred by this misfortune, Hussein found a British colonial administrator to pay for his high-school education. After studying art in Singapore, in 1959 he won a four-year scholarship at the Byam Shaw School of Art in London and spent three years at London’s Royal Academy of Arts (1963–66). A wealthy British collector supplied him with enough canvas to last him ten years, and he befriended the young Sultan of Selangor. When he painted an overtly political work on a torn 12-foot-long Malaysian flag following the May 13 Malay-Chinese race riots in Kuala Lumpur in 1969, a deputy prime minister saved him from arrest and permitted him to display his work. Shortly afterwards, he was offered a sinecure position as an artist in residence at the University of Malaysia, and in 1970, he became the first Malaysian artist to participate in the Venice Biennale.
As his career advanced, Hussein traveled and showed widely in Europe, the United States and the Middle East, reflecting the politics of these places in his topical works. In 1991, Hussein and his wife Sim established the Ibrahim Hussein Museum and Cultural Foundation, in Pulau Langkawi, which opened to the public in 2000 alongside an international arts festival with the blessing of then Malaysian prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad. The museum, which was built around the Hussein home and only required the felling of 13 trees, became a sort of salon-in-the-jungle for local and visiting artists. In his later years, Hussein executed some of his work on pieces of timber and rock.
The winner of the 1997 Crystal Award at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Hussein was an unassuming and modest man who cherished his family and his friends. A recent work that encapsulates his humility and sense of humor, He Says, consists of letter-press printed text reading: “One blind eye, One broken tooth, One mole…” Describing his art, he said: “To me, painting is like praying. When I paint, I am dealing with my heart, my work and God.”