THE petite lady with a full head of white hair, smiles with a sparkle in her eye. It’s the same sparkle she’s had for more than 20 years.
Anyone meeting Sharifah Zuriah Aljeffri for the first time can’t help but take to her instantly.
Although she stands at less than five feet, the 76-year-old stands tall in the Malaysian art community as well as in non-governmental organisation Sisters in Islam.
Sharifah Zuriah is one of the co-founders of Sisters in Islam. She was also the first Malay artist to paint in the Chinese brush style.
Today, Sharifah Zuriah still paints watercolours and Chinese brush paintings. Her watercolour works have her signature lotus, which have featured prominently in her art for more than 20 years now.
“It’s the symbol of peace and purity and that’s what human beings should be like. We are surrounded by all this polluted environment, evil and destruction but we can rise above it like the lotus,” says the ever cheerful Sharifah Zuriah.
She also does Arabic calligraphy in the Chinese brush style.
Her art is recognisable to those who are familiar with her work. Her strokes are deft and the colours deep and rich. Her works speak a language of their own and they resonate of confidence and maturity.
She also dabbles in silk painting, although her hours spent painting have shortened due to her recent back problem, after having a fall last year.
“I didn’t retire at all. I’ve been doing whatever I’ve been doing all my life. When I worked in the US Embassy, I was handling art and culture. Outside, I’ve been doing the same thing.
“My work life and personal life somehow are intertwined. I don’t feel bored or lonely. There is so much to do,” she admits.
Sharifah Zuriah started painting in 1976 when she was still working at the US Embassy as the cultural advisor. She started taking lessons from watercolour artist Anthony Sum – it was something that was meant to fill her afternoons as a mere hobby.
She was soon asked to display her art in her first solo exhibition at the Sum Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur in 1979.
In the 1980s Sharifah Zuriah stopped for a while because she found that she was just copying the work of masters, which is how one learns Chinese brush painting. She wanted to create her own identity.
When she retired in 1993, Sharifah Zuriah went full-time into art. By then she had already made a name for herself within the art circles.
She calls herself a “late starter” in life, admitting to needing time to summon up courage to do anything.
She admits always being fascinated with Chinese philosophy and nature. A typical scene depicted in many Chinese brush paintings is the one with the looming hills and a small man in the forefront. It is one that resonates with her as it is a reminder of how small man is compared with nature.
Ever the environmentalist, Sharifah Zuriah says man can take from nature but he needs to give back to nature too.
Nature and being socially responsible are things that are important to her.
Although she hasn’t had a solo exhibition since 2009, Sharifah Zuriah still participates in group exhibitions.
She participated in the Live & Breathe Art 2014 exhibition by ART @ Sepang GoldCoast at the Sepang GoldCoast Resort in September, where she displayed her watercolours, including a few new works.
For that exhibition, the six artists also worked on one painting collectively to contribute to unity and diversity.
She also participated in Bank Negara Museum and Art Gallery’s exhibition in October for which she produced some fresh works.
“I’m trying to do some acrylic work as well but that takes a long time. Watercolours are more immediate. I prefer seeing immediate results rather than having to wait. I’m quite impatient at times,” says Sharifah Zuriah.
She admits it’s been quite a while since she exhibited abroad, not for a lack of works, but because of the hassle involved in doing so. Her last solo exhibition was in 2005 at the Embassy of Malaysia in The Hague, the Netherlands.
Sharifah Zuriah admits that there are “perks” to being older. She gets away with more now that she has a full head of white hair.
“When I travel abroad, I have young people wanting to carry my bags. So many people look at me and smile when I travel, too. The response and reaction, the way that people look at you – it’s spontaneous. I am surprised and I sometimes wonder what it is,” she says.
Like everyone else, Sharifah Zuriah also has her fears about ageing and one day being unable to continue doing what she loves and enjoys.
“I always thank God for what He has given me and that I can continue to be as I am. I have had some illnesses – my back problem after having a fall last year and I have Parkinson’s which is under control with medication. I have had it for years now.
“I have learned to cope and identify within my physical body what works and what doesn’t. You need to find out for yourself if you are able to do it. I think you learn to try to overcome limitations or try to minimise them. And, with God’s guidance I’ve been able to do it,” she says.