SORAYA FINDS SUCCESS IN PORTRAITS
A Malaysian photographer shares her story-within-a-story with New Yorkers through her Imaging Selfs exhibition in Manhattan.
WHILE some people see dyslexia as a learning disability, Soraya Yusof Talismail sees it as a gift.
Soraya, 40, is often described as one of Malaysia’s finest portrait photographers who includes among her subjects luminaries like Queen Elizabeth II and the late Yasser Arafat.
She is also dyslexic. Grappling with numbers, symbols, and written words can be quite a task, she admits, but this is compensated by an astute observation of things around her and an ability to think in terms of pictures.
Her childhood ambition was to be an architect but she failed to qualify for the course in college as she was “no good with numbers”, Soraya confided during an interview.
Fate had something else lined up and she pursued photography at ITM instead. That was some 20 years ago. Soraya has had no regrets, describing her career as a “successful arranged marriage” where she has grown to love photography.
Her talent and creativity have taken her to interesting places, the latest being the Big Apple, where she held a solo exhibition entitled Imaging Selfs: New York last month.
Soraya was invited by Eng Tay, a Malaysian-born artist who has made NYC home for more than 30 years, to hold her exhibition in conjunction with the launch of his ETAY Gallery in Broadway, Manhattan.
The exhibition showcases Soraya’s portraits of 26 Malaysian artistes who have made it big on home ground or elsewhere and have some ties with the US, either through their arts foundation, exhibitions, or their own merit or have been influenced by American pop culture or creative sentiments.
It is a spin-off from Soraya’s Imaging Selfs exhibition held at the Petronas Gallery in Kuala Lumpur last November, featuring black and white portraits of 80 Malaysian artistes. Imaging Selfs is the culmination of a 15-year project started when a young Soraya, fresh out of college, wanted to capture the portraits of Malaysian talents and bring out the essence of their personalities.
Then 24, Soraya relentlessly trailed some of the biggest names in the arts from state to state, trying to fix appointments, persuading them to have their portraits taken and planning location shoots. To finance her artistic project she did formal portraits.
By the time her Imaging Selfs portraiture exhibition was held, Soraya had immortalised many of Malaysia’s finest artists on print.
They include the late movie director Yasmin Ahmad whom Soraya described as one of the easiest persons to work with, renowned painter sculptor Yeoh Jin Leng, choreographer/dancer Marion D’ Cruz, visual effects artist Shahril Ibrahim, Malaysia’s pop princess Datuk Siti Nurhaliza, Eng Tay, fellow photographer Eric Peris, musician composer Jenny Chin, and fashion designer Bernard Chandran.
The list goes on. But what stands out in her artistic works is that no one race dominates.
“I don’t see our artistes as Malay, Indian, Chinese, Sabahan or Sarawakian. To me, they are all talented Malaysians who have contributed to the country and who we should be proud of,” she said.
Apart from performing artistes who often appear before large crowds, many of her subjects were incredibly shy people who needed to be persuaded to go before the camera.
It took her almost 10 years to get playwright Dr Noordin Hassan to finally agree to have his portrait taken, Soraya recalled.
The first artist she photographed for the project in 1994 was a good friend, Bayu Utomo Radjikin, a founder member of the Matahati art group. Some of the artistes are friends of her husband Ariff Awaluddin, an artistphotographer who also runs a bistro in Petaling Jaya.
Many artistes featured in the New York exhibition had explored their beginnings in the US. Jenny Chin, Mac Chew and Acis were products of the Berklee College of Music, artist photographer Ismail Hashim went to Washington State University, while Latiff Mohidin attended Pratt Institute in New York. Choreographer dancer Ramli Ibrahim has performed from coast to coast.
Soraya’s first SLR camera was a Nikon FG and till today, she prefers the conventional camera to the digital camera for her portraits; she believes film gives better tonal quality.
Soraya and Ariff love travelling and spend over a month each year visiting exotic and interesting places with their 11-year-old son Ushuaia.
Soraya said her travels, sometimes coinciding with her exhibitions or talks on photography, have given her a better insight, not just of the world but also of things back home.
For Soraya, holding the New York exhibition has been a challenging experience.
“We had to do everything ourselves, from getting the artwork ready, seeking funds, planning our flights from KL, accommodation, designing the catalogue, sending out invitations, and even preparing the refreshments!”
Still, holding an exhibition in the Big Apple is a personal triumph for Soraya. Her Imaging Selfs is her story within a story – a journey that carries with it the artistic journeys of her peers.
Interesting work-of-art: Visitors at Soraya’s (inset) exhibition in Manhattan.