Being physically challenged is no handicap to creating works of art, as Mat Jamil Ramli proves.
AT an art demonstration at the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (MFPA) gallery in Ampang Park, Kuala Lumpur, Mat Jamil Ramli, 22, can only shake his head as I try my hand at painting a banana leaf.
“You have to blend the colour, not slap it on,” says the 22-year-old foot artist.
I hand the brush over to Jamil who receives it with his right foot. Then holding the brush with his toes, he proceeds to correct my faux pas.
“I learned to use my feet from a very young age. It came naturally,” he says.
Jamil, who started painting at age seven, joined MFPA a year ago after a neighbour, who had received a set of greeting cards from the association, showed him a brochure.
At the gallery, original artworks by MFPA artists line the walls. One watercolour depicts birds in flight. Another oil painting exudes the warmth of burning candles among sprigs of mistletoe.
The MFPA reproduces these artworks into greeting cards, wrapping paper, calendars, bookmarks etc.
Self-help, not charity, is the MFPA’s motto.
“I have always liked art. It was my favourite subject in school. I thought why not try to make a living out of it. After all, I did not want to be dependent on others,” says Jamil, who was born without hands.
While many disabled people are dependent on their families, Jamil can pride himself on being independent. He shares a rented bachelor’s pad with five friends in Serdang and is able to indulge in his love for fashion, music and aftershave.
This outgoing chap was also an athlete in the Paralympics and won a gold medal in the 100m sprint for Terengganu in 2005. He has been given a scholarship to do graphic design at The Mines ICT Able Training Institute.
But Jamil stresses that family support is very important.
“My parents didn’t give me special treatment despite being handicapped. I had to do my share of housework, like cooking and sweeping the floor,” says Jamil.
“My parents always encouraged me in all my endeavours. They don’t believe I can’t do something because I don’t have hands. It is all about adjusting (oneself to the situation). I think they would have even taught me how to farm if I had the interest,” says Jamil, of his Felda settler parents.
MFPA’s objective is to assimilate handicapped artists into society by giving them a purpose in life. MFPA manager Susan Woon observes that the main problem faced by most handicapped people is their lack of exposure to the world.
“A lot of families don’t like to reveal that they have a disabled family member because of the stigma,” she says.
“So it is not surprising that most handicapped people are very sad about their condition. What we do is try to prepare them mentally and get them back into the mainstream,” says Woon.
No doubt that behind every artwork lies a story of determination.
“Some of our artists suffer from violent muscle spasms so they have to sit by a wall to control their movements in order to paint. Then there are the bedridden ones.
“In the beginning, they may not even be able to draw a straight line. So for a handicapped artist to produce a painting of such high standard, he would have had to overcome much. You can liken this achievement to an able-bodied person conquering Mt Everest!” she says.
Still there are cynics who see the MFPA venture as a marketing ploy to gain sympathy from the public.
Woon had similar misgivings when offered the job to start MFPA in Malaysia in 1974. She had just left school.
“My thoughts were: ‘Were they serious? Was this a genuine organisation?’” she remembers.
A meeting with the late Yip Hei Kuan, a polio victim who lost the use of her hands, prompted Woon to look into the association’s background.
She found out that MFPA in Singapore is linked to the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists Worldwide (AMFPA) in Lichtenstein (a small principality between Austria and Switzerland).
Founded in 1956 by the late German mouth painter A.E. Stegmann, the association is an extended international family of artists who have lost the use of their hands.
Now convinced, Woon set up office in Malaysia and helped Yip submit six original paintings to the AMFPA for evaluation. Upon acceptance, Yip became MFPA Malaysia’s first member.
Today, the association has eight artists. Worldwide, there are over 600 members from 60 countries.
On the requirements of an MFPA artist, Woon says, “Our artists must be able to project their own creativity and style.’’
On average, each member produces four original paintings a month. MFPA, which is run as a private limited company, bears the printing costs of reproductions but the artists get 100% from the sale of original paintings. Products are sold via mass mailing during the festive seasons.
As the goods are mailed out before collecting payment, I wonder if MFPA isn’t taking a risk. What if the recipients skip payment?
“Mailing the greeting cards is an awareness campaign to reach out to rural areas. It’s also a way to keep costs down as hiring marketing people will be expensive. In the end, it’s about trust. We hope that the public will be fair. So far, we are lucky that we have very strong support from Malaysians,” says Woon.
“In the end, it is the foot and mouth artists who own the company. The income from this commercial venture will go to artist royalties and scholarships for new members,” she explains.
Woon also points out that there are no membership fees.
“When Yip was taken into the association, she was given an allowance of a few hundred ringgit. From this, she was able to get herself an art teacher and painting materials.
“I could see the change in her because she had found a purpose in life. Being financially independent really boosted her confidence,” says Woon. W
Who can join MFPA?Any body who has lost the use of his hands and paints with the mouth or foot can become a potential member of the association. They must submit six paintings, a medical certificate stating that they are unable to hold a paintbrush with their hands, two photographs and a short biography. All materials will be sent to the association’s headquarters in Lichtenstein for evaluation before one can be accepted as a member. MFPA can be contacted at (03) 2161 8860/8502.