Autism artist Danial Kushairi illuminates canvas with expressive colours


Danial Kushairi, an artist whose canvas transcends the barriers of verbal communication, poses with an artwork in his home in Shah Alam. Diagnosed as autistic, Danial’s journey into the world of art began in his late teens, a revelation that transformed not only his life but also the perception of those around him. Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin

In a world often measured by words, there exists a realm where silence speaks volumes, where colours and strokes narrate tales untold.

Meet Danial Kushairi, a Malaysian artist whose canvas transcends the barriers of verbal communication, and weaves stories of beauty and emotion through art. Diagnosed as autistic, Danial’s journey into the world of art began in his late teens, a revelation that transformed not only his life but also the perception of those around him.

“He always loved to doodle in his younger days,” says Danial’s mum, retired Maths lecturer Rohani Ahmad, who manages his art career today.

“But my husband and I never really thought much of it. All children draw and doodle, we didn’t think this was anything out of the ordinary.”

Apparently, however, in the quiet corners of his mind, Danial had discovered a reservoir of creativity waiting to be unleashed, one that would one day overflow onto the canvas with a kaleidoscope of colours. His artistic endeavour, fuelled by an innate passion and thoughtfully nurtured by the loyal, loving support of his family, has blossomed into a livelihood, challenging the conventional notions of success and fulfilment.

Though verbal, Danial’s speech is limited.

For his paintings, Danial uses acrylics on canvas and his subject matter centres on nature or Malaysiana – kampung scenes, local musical instruments, flora and fauna. Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin  For his paintings, Danial uses acrylics on canvas and his subject matter centres on nature or Malaysiana – kampung scenes, local musical instruments, flora and fauna. Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin

“When he was younger, we noticed that he would avoid socialising and used to draw as a means of escape, to avoid talking to people. So we intentionally or consciously stopped him from drawing to focus on therapy,” says Rohani.

“Because of this, he didn’t get the chance to draw much from the time he was eight. When he turned 14, we realised that the normal education system was not suitable for Danial. We decided to homeschool him instead and enrolled him into an art class for almost a year.

“He followed the lessons well but I think the curriculum was rather rigid and we didn’t see any improvement. He just attended the lessons but at home he never enjoyed drawing or painting much at all. So we pulled him out of that art class.”

At 15, however, a visit to an art gallery sparked a revelation for Danial’s family: his unmistakable passion for art and painting became evident as he visibly lit up and appeared at ease in the gallery’s ambiance.

Uncertain about his talent, his parents took a proactive and unconventional step by engaging an artist to paint alongside Danial at home.

Danial (centre) at home with his parents Ahmad and Rohani, who play a pivotal role in nurturing his creativity. Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin  Danial (centre) at home with his parents Ahmad and Rohani, who play a pivotal role in nurturing his creativity. Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin

Over the course of three months, as they witnessed Danial’s growing confidence, he gradually transitioned to painting independently, marking the beginning of an extraordinary journey into the realm of art.

Recognising Danial’s growing interest and newfound ability to paint without guidance, his family saw the potential in providing him with formal training in visual art.

They enrolled him in a structured art programme, intending to give him the opportunity to further develop his skills and artistic expression. With a plan to gauge his progress over the course of two or three years, they embarked on this journey, eager to witness Danial’s growth.

“Just five months after he started painting, he was invited to participate in a group art exhibition. It came as a surprise to us as we thought Danial was not ready yet,” admits Rohani, adding that both her retired IT manager husband Ahmad Kushairi and she had little to no knowledge of art at the time.

“Danial was the only neurodivergent artist invited (to exhibit). We thought he was not ready yet, but he proved us wrong. From then onwards, he has been participating in exhibitions locally and internationally.

A work titled 'In My Eyes I', which highlights Danial’s attention to detail and keen observational skills allowing him to capture buildings and their architectural charm on canvas. Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin  A work titled 'In My Eyes I', which highlights Danial’s attention to detail and keen observational skills allowing him to capture buildings and their architectural charm on canvas. Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin

“Over the years, we have witnessed him progressing steadily – not just in painting style, but in social skills and confidence,” says Rohani.

Since his debut in 2019 at the Colours Of Malaysia: Harmony & Unity exhibition at Inner Joy Art in Petaling Jaya, Danial has participated in more than 20 group exhibitions; four of which were at international levels.

In 2021 his painting The Three Women Carrying Basket was selected to participate in the exhibitions ArtWorks Together Virtual Exhibition in Britain, and Qingdao International Contemporary Art Exhibition in Qingdao, China.

In the same year, Danial’s painting Intrigue I was selected to participate in the exhibition 2021 Paraart Tokyo in Japan.

He was also one of 10 special needs artists that were selected to participate in an exhibition featuring Malaysian artists in Turin, Italy last April.

“My husband and I have worked as a team to help Danial with his art career. We tap on our strengths and use them to help Danial develop.

Danial finds solace and joy in creating vibrant and colorful artwork, expressing himself freely through a kaleidoscope of hues. Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin  Danial finds solace and joy in creating vibrant and colorful artwork, expressing himself freely through a kaleidoscope of hues. Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin

“When our daughters – Najwa Asyikin, Nuwairah Aimi and Nuwairah Aimi – graduated and started working, they also were happy to get involved in their brother’s career.

“In all Danial’s events, we try our best to accompany him and support him. We also tapped on our daughters’ strengths, whether it was marketing, finance or videography, so that we could do this as a team,” shares Rohani.

In 2021 and 2022, Danial co-authored and illustrated two children’s storybooks, Mr Turtle To The Rescue and Ben Saves The Day. The storybooks are based on his interpretation of his original paintings The Ocean Turtle and The Ocean Fish, respectively.

“Danial’s speech is limited. It’s a challenge for him to express his emotions in words even when it comes to his paintings,” Rohani explains, adding that the process of understanding and interpreting Danial’s ideas can be painstaking.

“I have found the best time to talk to him is in the morning. And even so, you probably can only get in three questions or so. But with patience, I was able to create a storyline for the books, and Danial was very much a part of the entire process of creating those stories.”

Danial skillfully captures the pulsating energy of a traditional music show, translating the rhythm and passion into a visual symphony of colours and movement on canvas. Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin  Danial skillfully captures the pulsating energy of a traditional music show, translating the rhythm and passion into a visual symphony of colours and movement on canvas. Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin

When it comes to his art, Danial has a unique style. He uses acrylics on canvas and his subject matter usually centres on nature or Malaysiana – kampung scenes, local musical instruments, as well as flora and fauna. The side porch of the family’s home in Shah Alam has been converted into Danial’s studio where he is free to explore his art at any time. It is a beautiful spot overlooking Rohani’s garden and with an abundance of natural light.

The artist within

At 1.8m tall, 21-year-old Danial cuts a striking figure. He is quiet but always polite. He has learnt how to navigate the days by sticking to his routine and embracing his art.

“He finds great joy in following a routine, and that includes waking up early, saying his prayers and then painting for the rest of the morning in his studio,” says Rohani.

“His artistic process also includes taking photos of something that captures his attention or anything he encounters that he finds unique and interesting; these are then used as a reference or inspiration. Earlier in his career he would sketch on paper before he transferred the drawing onto the canvas, but now he is more confident and sketches directly onto the canvas.

“Once he starts to paint, he gets ‘absorbed’ in his vibrant world. He enjoys making his work as detailed as possible and uses vibrant colours. His world is very colourful.”

A piece of nature is the theme of Danial's work 'Little Pond Vol II'. Photo: Danial Kushairi A piece of nature is the theme of Danial's work 'Little Pond Vol II'. Photo: Danial Kushairi

In March last year, Danial achieved a milestone with his first solo exhibition, A Walk In The Park at Inner Joy Art Gallery, where all 20 of his paintings sold out.

As for 2024, he has already exhibited at Semua Karena Cinta in Jakarta, Indonesia, and has a few more projects up his sleeve.

For this Hari Raya season, Danial has collaborated with a pharmacy chain, which is using his artworks for its festive season E-cash vouchers.

Rohani notes that Danial has been warmly embraced by the local art community.

“We’ve partnered with several art galleries, and their support for an inclusive environment, where neurodivergent and neurotypical artists collaborate in group exhibitions, has been incredibly encouraging and positive.”

A reflective piece from Danial titled 'Alone In The Dark'. Photo: Danial Kushairi A reflective piece from Danial titled 'Alone In The Dark'. Photo: Danial Kushairi

Rohani emphasises her hope that Danial’s art will serve as a catalyst for societal recognition, demonstrating that individuals on the autism spectrum and those with learning disabilities are valuable contributors to the nation’s economy.

Just like neurotypical artists, they possess the capacity to elevate our country’s reputation through international exhibitions. She urges against dismissing their talent, but rather advocates for recognising and nurturing their skills to enable their economic and cultural participation.

“We aspire for Danial’s journey and accomplishments to ignite a flame of perseverance in others. Let his story remind us not to surrender to challenges or allow learning disabilities to obstruct our path to success.

"With determination and support, every individual, regardless of their neurodiversity, holds the potential to thrive and make meaningful contributions to our society and economy,” concludes Rohani.

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