It has always been Afi Sulaiman’s dream to write a children’s book.
Her bedroom is brimming with beloved books, such as Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.
Having been surrounded by whimsical, vibrant books while growing up, it’s no wonder that Afi (short for Afiqah) is now a full-time artist and illustrator who embodies a similar style in her artwork.
Her upcoming children’s book Malaysian Food Tales was a labour of love two years in the making, with support from graphic designer and illustrator Khalisa Aida.
It features O’Nasi O’Lemak, from Afi’s earlier work, and a new story, Kuih Talam Dua Muka. The former tale is about rice that tries to fit into cliques of different rice dishes, while the latter is about a group of kuih muih that find out something quite surprising about their respectful and humble leader.
The book will be launched with the "Food Ga(lore) Book Tour", in collaboration with Kakiseni Junior.
The interactive book tour will have five stops, starting with Badan Warisan Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur on July 7 from 12.30pm to 4pm.
“I thought that with book launches, you just do it once. But then someone suggested that I do more than one event, and the book tour just came together,” said Afi.
“I love doing storytelling sessions with kids, so each event will have that, as well as different types of workshops and a mini art exhibition featuring my work and Khalisa Aida’s,” she added.
Is being an artist a real job?
However, her journey to becoming an artist hasn’t been so straightforward.
“Both of my parents are dentists, actually,” said Afi, who is based in Shah Alam, Selangor.
But she assures that her family have been fully supportive of her creative endeavours.“My mum does say that it takes a certain amount of artistry to create moulds of teeth, so perhaps I got my creative side from her,” she added with a cheeky smile.
In fact, the 27-year-old initially wanted to become an architect. But after deciding to take a gap year from her tertiary studies at Newcastle University, Afi rediscovered her love of art when she applied to join the 2019 cohort of the National Art Gallery’s Young Art Entrepreneurs (YAE) programme in Kuala Lumpur.
During the programme, she picked up skills that would prove useful for any aspiring artist who wanted to run a creative business.
“The programme didn’t really touch on the art side, like how to improve your skills in art, but rather, it teaches you how to become an entrepreneur in art, focusing on the business aspect, like IP (intellectual property) and how to write a business proposal,” she explained.
“Being a part of the YAE programme actually helped a lot, as I realised that people in the industry will have their eyes on participants and watch them as they grow their career. Being in the programme helped me to network and make connections.”
That same year, Afi also self-published O’Nasi O’Lemak, written and illustrated by her, which helped secure a grant from MyCreative Ventures to publish it as part of a children’s book.
Developing a style
Since becoming a full-time artist, Afi has made a name for herself in the Malaysian arts and illustration scene, collaborating with brands such as Snackfood and AEON and taking part in exhibitions.
In the fast-paced world of contemporary art and design, is there enough time for a young artist to develop an individual style?
Afi paused and thought hard for a moment.
“I would describe my style as drawing from local culture, infused with a Western artistic style,” she said.
“I draw inspiration from local culture and food. I’ve always been an imaginative kid – I’d come up with games to play with my friends just using our imaginations. I was a big reader and was often inspired by children’s books. One of these days, I’d like to travel around the country and experience the food culture.”
Her most popular pieces include elements of everyday Malaysia life, such as tiffin carriers, traditional kuih muih and motifs often seen on dining ware or vases, put together in a colourful digital collage style that is evocative of paper collages.
Afi’s favourite exhibition that she’s taken part in so far was Wenhua Nouveau, a duo collaboration with multidisciplinary visual artist Zhonk Vision and presented by Kultur Art Nouveau at 22 Hale Street Heritage Gallery in Ipoh earlier this year.
The exhibition was in celebration of Chinese New Year, and since this year is the year of the Rabbit, Afi’s pieces incorporated rabbits and a rendering of her family home, as well as her maternal and paternal grandparents’ homes in a nod to her familial roots.
Working in the exhibition also exposed her to the world of possibilities in art made using artificial intelligence (AI), as Zhonk Vision used her artwork to create a whole new piece using AI technology.
“For me, AI could be a great tool in creating art, but it must be ethically used, with consent from the artist of the original work. You can’t stop the spread or growth of technology, but you can find a balance,” she said.
However, the idea of delving into the AI art scene isn't in her plans.
“My hands are better at translating my imagination into reality,” she said. Afi’s artistic influences tend to favour local artists, such as painter Haron Mokhtar; the late Sylvia Lee Goh, the queen of Peranakan art; and power couple Kide Baharudin and Ika Sharom, who are both artists and printmakers.
“Their works often feature characterisation that’s unique to Malaysia, and I admire how they can bring the country forward in art,” said Afi.
Haron, in particular, is a favourite.
“Growing up, my mum often took me and my sister to Concorde Hotel in Shah Alam to enjoy the hi-tea, and it was there that I fell in love with his artwork, which were displayed in the hotel. I love his use of colour and architecture.”
Has she ever met her creative idol in person while making the rounds at art exhibitions?
“You know how they say don’t meet your heroes?” Afi started with a grimace.
“My Bahasa Malaysia isn’t that great, so it was a bit awkward when trying to speak with him. He was nice, though, and I will continue to appreciate his work from afar,” she said with a laugh.
For Afi, activist and youngest Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography changed her perspective on life.
“I learned that nothing worth having comes easy – if it is worth having, you have to give it your all,” she said.
That same philosophy is imbued in her art and reflected in her dedication and commitment to her career.
Afi showed us stacks of her organisers, filled with scribbled-down ideas, to-do lists and five-year plans.
“I’m so grateful that I get to explore my passion and people like my work. I’m still amazed by it to this day that I get to do this full-time,” she said.She believes that anyone can make art into a viable career.
"But you have to focus on yourself and your art," Afi advised.
"In the age of social media, many people are focused on getting viral with just one thing and getting their 15 minutes of fame. But if you're serious about your art, steady growth is important – the right people will take notice."