A Malaysian pho­tog­ra­pher shares her story-within-a-story with New York­ers through her Imag­ing Selfs ex­hi­bi­tion in Man­hat­tan.

The Star Malaysia - - VIEWS -

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.

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