Merdeka to Mat Som: Arif Rafhan Othman draws on Malaysian inspirations


Arif's new painting 'Tunku', which features ink, charcoal and gold acrylic, is one of the works at the 'My Malaysia: A Special Kind Of Wonderful' group exhibition at Balai Seni, Menara Maybank in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Arif Rafhan Othman

Arif Rafhan Othman has had a busy last few months with various projects to complete, but if there is an opportunity to get involved in a national day art project, you can always count him in.

He has contributed three works to the newly-opened My Malaysia: A Special Kind Of Wonderful group exhibition at Balai Seni, Menara Maybank in Kuala Lumpur, including a striking new portrait paying tribute to Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-haj, the nation's founding father.

"Tunku remains such a tremendous unifying symbol for all Malaysians. I constructed the portrait using themes of our nation’s past, present and hope (future). The medium used also covers that narrative; rough charcoal and ink, blended with white and gold acrylic," said Arif, who outdid himself with an array of doodle art details (with Merdeka themes) in this new portrait work.

"To me, group exhibitions have always been a humbling experience. Everybody is so good and their artworks are great. It makes you feel blessed to be included alongside them," he added.

These days, Arif's works can be found in many places, from art galleries and wall murals to film posters and batik artwork. The list is a long one, and we have not even added comic books.

The cartoonist and illustrator reminisces on how his experiences have shaped his work and his thoughts on the power of art.

“Tak grunge lah (This isn’t grunge),” groused Arif as we made him pose and smile for photos prior to a recent interview at his home in Jenjarom, Selangor.

Arif aka ‘Superdoofus’, posing with his batik 'Star Wars' series during an interview at his home studio in Jenjarom, Selangor. Photo: Muhamad Shahril Rosli/The StarArif aka ‘Superdoofus’, posing with his batik 'Star Wars' series during an interview at his home studio in Jenjarom, Selangor. Photo: Muhamad Shahril Rosli/The Star

But once he starts talking about his work and interests, Arif, who goes by the name “Superdoofus” online, enthusiastically breaks his “punk” persona.

He spent the first four years of his life in Ipoh, Perak where his father, who was a lecturer in fine art, made sure that he and his siblings were exposed to the arts from a young age.

“As the eldest, I was the one who underwent the most rigorous training in the arts. My father kept a folder of my artwork, the earliest one being a drawing of a Snoopy-like dog that I made when I was one,” he said.

Thus began his life-long love affair with art.

At 46, Arif has over 17 years of experience in art and design under his belt, ranging from comics and book illustrations to mural commissions.

After graduating in computer science with a major in multimedia, Arif’s career began in web design. He and his two friends later decided to establish an e-learning company that developed educational content for government bodies.

As the company grew, Arif stopped doing art and was instead focused on managing people.

Doodle artwork 'Ibu Pertiwi', or 'Motherland', symbolises loyalty, love and compassion, and was inspired by Arif’s mother. Photo: Arif Rafhan OthmanDoodle artwork 'Ibu Pertiwi', or 'Motherland', symbolises loyalty, love and compassion, and was inspired by Arif’s mother. Photo: Arif Rafhan Othman

“Back then, I felt a bit lost. I lost my passion,” he admitted. At the same time, peers from college began reaching out to him to ask if he would collaborate with them to do artwork for various projects, such as book covers and concept art.

“That’s how I started to draw again. Working on these projects, even late into the night, it filled me with joy. So after a while, I started to contemplate making the jump into doing art full-time, which came with a bit of a risk, considering the fact that I was in my mid-30s by then and had a family to support,” said Arif.

After discussing with his wife, who encouraged him to pursue his creative calling, Arif left his company of 11 years to become an artist for hire.

The birth of Superdoofus

Now, the question that no doubt many would have in mind: “Why ‘Superdoofus’?”

With a sheepish smile, Arif confessed, “I didn’t really put much thought into it, actually. But the story behind it is that among my college friends, we call each other ‘doofus’, as friends do, so it’s a tribute to that. But I thought it might sound negative to some people, so I added ‘super’ ... like a superhero. I guess you could say Superdoofus is both aspirational and a reminder to stay humble.”

When asked about his art style, Arif pondered the question for some time. “I would say that I aim to create art that is wholesome and positive, incorporating elements of ‘Malaysiana’. My main source of inspiration is my family,” he said.

Arif working on a new comic book project in his studio. Photo: Muhamad Shahril Rosli/The StarArif working on a new comic book project in his studio. Photo: Muhamad Shahril Rosli/The Star

Out of all the artwork he’s created, Arif is most proud of Ibu Pertiwi (Motherland), an intricate ink on canvas doodle that is a tribute to Malaysia and his mother. It features a variety of details familiar to many Malaysians, such as women in kebaya, local flora and fauna, and famous national figures, all of which fit together to form a larger image of a Malay woman with a hibiscus flower adorning her ear.

“My mum is the biggest inspiration for this piece, so I dedicated it to her,” he said.

Ibu Pertiwi is also one of his current exhibits at the My Malaysia: A Special Kind Of Wonderful show.

Working with Lat

Arif's most challenging work so far? Inking and shading the sketches from cartoonist Datuk Lat.

“It’s not easy to emulate another artist’s style, so you really have to study their work,” explained Arif.

“Lat is one of my heroes, so working with him has helped me grow the most as an artist. I’ve been his inker for the past four years, and he’s become like a member of the family.”

Arif was also present at the much-awaited opening of the Lat House Gallery in Batu Gajah, Perak recently, where Lat was bestowed the title of "Seniman Diraja" (Royal Artist) by Sultan of Perak Sultan Nazrin Shah.

The sequel to Lat's classic comic, Mat Som, is expected to be released by the end of this year. First published in 1989, fans have been excitedly waiting for the follow-up to Mat Som's story.

"It's been four years in the making," said Arif, who realises the importance of this new book to Lat's fanbase.

Arif is currently inking Datuk Lat's new book 'Mat Som 2', which is scheduled for release next year. Photo: Arif Rafhan OthmanArif is currently inking Datuk Lat's new book 'Mat Som 2', which is scheduled for release next year. Photo: Arif Rafhan Othman

"Like everyone else, I grew up reading all of Lat's books, so when he first offered me the job, I was scared that I would screw it up," he admitted.

"But Lat has encouraged me to experiment and be confident with my strokes. It's been the highlight of my career."

Cultivating creativity

As a father of three, Arif takes an active role in nurturing his children’s creative interests, which includes regular jamming sessions in their small, homemade studio.

“I actually took a page out of my dad’s book. My exposure to art from a young age built the foundation for my interest in art, so I’ve done the same with my own kids. We show them different mediums of art, share how it’s done and encourage them to explore their curiosity,” he said.

For Arif and his wife Suhana, who herself was a 3D modeller for games, it’s crucial for parents to encourage their children to experiment with their creativity.

“Nowadays, there’s an oversaturation of media to consume, which can get overwhelming. But through the arts, kids can create something of their own, something new and unique and beautiful. It provides a positive outlet for kids to express themselves,” he said.

Finding authentic Malaysian stories

Having only joined the local arts scene in 2014, Arif joked that he was considered an “old man”, as many of the artists recognised as “otai”, or “seniors”, were younger than him.

“The up-and-coming artists these days are from a completely different generation. Now, I see young Malaysian artists doing work such as webtoons for overseas markets, and I think that’s smart,” he said.

A range of Arif’s published works – in English and Bahasa Malaysia books – in the past 10 years. Photo: Muhamad Shahril Rosli/The StarA range of Arif’s published works – in English and Bahasa Malaysia books – in the past 10 years. Photo: Muhamad Shahril Rosli/The Star

If Arif had to give advice to aspiring artists, he’d tell them: “Be an international artist.”

“Cultural exports are the way to go, like what South Korea and Mexico are doing with comics and animation. Such works can generate interest in learning more about a country and its culture,” he shared.

“When you produce works incorporating Malaysian elements and introduce them to an international audience, you become something of an ambassador for Malaysian culture, like Lat. I think there are plenty of opportunities to tell authentic stories from the Malaysian perspective.”

Arif’s artwork has appeared in local and regional publications, such as Gila-Gila magazine, Asian Folk Tales And Legends by Suzee Leong, and even his own comic book, Pelempang Realiti, published by local publisher Maple Comics. In 2014, he collaborated with close friend Zan Azlee for Adventures Of A KL-ite In Afghanistan, illustrating Zan’s travels in the war-torn country and their correspondence during that time.

One of his most recent series of artwork, Batik Star Wars, was commissioned exclusively for this year's Festival of the Force in June, a fan-organised charity event in Petaling Jaya to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Return Of The Jedi’s movie release.

A huge Star Wars fan himself, Arif was honoured to see the positive reception his batik pieces had garnered among fellow fans. One of the works, The Duel, was auctioned off at the festival at RM1,300. The entire amount was donated to the charity organisation Gabungan Anak-Anak Palsi Serebrum (Alliance of Children with Cerebral Palsy).

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