b. Penang 1904 – 1962
THE RIVER FERRY, Undated
Signed and dated 'Abdullah Ariff. F.R.S.A' lower right;
titled on artist's label reverse
Watercolour on paper
36cm x 53cm
Private collection, Penang; acquired through Christie’s
Southeast Asian Modern and Contemporary Art, Hong Kong,
30 May 2010, lot 1172.
Eight Pioneers of Malaysian Art (With Supplement on Peter Harris), Dato’ Dr. Tan Chee Khuan, Penang State Art Gallery, 2013; illustrated on page 39.
ESTIMATE RM 40,000 - 50,000
PRICE REALISED RM 46,200
The scene resembles a movie still redolent with traditional Malay kampung charm. Abdullah Ariff relishes in the play of atmospherics in this, with the swirling forms on the left ‘ushering’ in the lone boatman to the makeshift jetty where a couple, garbed in finer clothes for an occasion, approaches. The boatman takes the role of a guardian angel, with the power to steer the couple into another realm. Leafy boughs take up the more static right half. A small window in the centre offers an idyllic vista of padi-fields, kampung stilt houses, coconut palm trees and children at play. The unusual choice of purples and blues is used to depict the foliage in the foreground, showcasing Abdullah’s superb wet-on-wet and dry-on-dry watercolour skills. Specific areas were left untouched, revealing the bare surface of the paper to highlight branches and leaves in the trees, the clothing on the couple and boatman, as well as the stilt houses in the background – a technique peculiar to the medium of watercolour. The foliage technique reminds one of a slightly bigger work by Abdullah - his 1956 Jungle Path. No wonder the great American watercolourist Dong Kingman (1911-2000) once praised Abdullah for his “ability to portray the atmosphere of the country”.
Abdullah Ariff had led a chequered life, playing multiple roles. Apart from being an artist, he had served as a politician, an art teacher (Anglo-Chinese School, Penang) and a cartoonist (Straits Echo newspaper, Kuala Lumpur, 1945-47). He is the only artist to have a road named after him, in Air Itam, Penang in 1955. He was the only one of two locals accepted into the expatriate group Penang Impressionists in the 1930s because of his ability in art, and is acknowledged along with Yong Mun Sen as pioneers of watercolour painting in Malaysia. Abdullah first made headway with solo exhibitions in the United States - Mint Museum and Ownbey Hall in Charlotte in 1954 and the Malayan Embassy in Washington in 1955. In the same year, he participated in the United Society of Artists group exhibition at the galleries of the Royal Society of British Artists, London. There, he was elected to join the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Art (F.R.S.A.) England.
Abdullah Ariff – Father of Modern Art in Malaysia, Zakaria Ali, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 2004.