At the ripe age of 89, Haji Mohd. Yusuff Shamsudin usually spends his time at home in Selayang, Selangor, making art pieces with wheat straws. Sometimes, during craft exhibitions, he would conduct live demonstrations of his craft to the public, drawing large crowds of curious visitors.
People get impressed when they see the octogenarian gluing minuscule pieces of colourful straw with his naked eye, with no drawing to copy from but ideas just flowed from his head.
Yusuff, who is addressed respectfully as Tok Usop among his friends and neighbours, has been creating wheat straw art for sale since 1950 when he was living in Singapore.
Born in 1927 in Hulu Langat, Selangor, Yusuff began learning the craft when he assisted his cousin in preparing wheat straws for art in 1947. The straws were collected from the dustbins of importers of Chinese glassware, who had thrown away those straws used for packing the fragile imported products.
His cousin Amir from Indonesia was already a wheat straw artist then. Amir lived in Kampung Baru and when Yusuff decided to move to the larger town to seek employment, he put up at Amir’s home. During the day, Yusuff worked as an odd-job worker at the Kampung Baru wet market.
Helping Amir and observing him in creating wheat straw craft, Yusuff naturally picked up the art. He shared, “After two years living with Amir, he returned to Padang, Indonesia, while I relocated to Java Road in Singapore, tagging along with my older brother to seek greener pastures. Unlike the life that I had envisioned we would lead in Singapore, I had trouble finding a job.”
For a year, Yusuff was unemployed but religiously honed his craft, until he sold his first piece of art. Recalling that first sale, he said, “It was only for SGD2.50 but to me, it was a great breakthrough. Making wheat straw art was the only skill I had and I had to somehow make a living from it.”
Slowly but surely, Yusuff’s kind of art began to be known to more people but he only managed to secure a stable income when a Singaporean company began buying from Yusuff in bulk of two to three hundred pieces every month. The company supplied the art to souvenir stores in the country and overseas, such as Malaysia and Hong Kong.
Wheat straw art was so popular at the time that they were even used as props in movies of the late Tan Sri P. Ramlee, namely Ibu Mertuaku and Pendekar Bujang Lapok, among others.
In 1971, Yusuff returned to Selayang, Malaysia upon receiving a job offer from his brother who had set up a passion fruit drink manufacturing plant. As the manager, Yusuff’s job included delivering the beverage to their clients all over the country. The job kept him so busy that he no longer had the time to sit down to create wheat straw art. Unfortunately, that job did not last long as the factory closed down four years later due to poor sales.
Going back to making wheat straw art, Yusuff managed to secure a buyer in Karyaneka, Malaysia’s premier gift store. The company bought hundreds of pieces of Yusuff’s art every month. This business relationship lasted for more than twenty years even though it did not bring in enough money to support the entire family of Yusuff, his wife and their nine children, two of whom subsequently passed away during childhood. Yusuff’s wife had to supplement the income by doing door-to-door sales of batik cloths which she procured from Singapore.
With steady income, although not much, life was OK for the family, until the business relationship had to be terminated because sales were dropping at the store. Once again, Yusuff had to look for another way to bring his art to the public – which he did by participating for the first time, in a craft exhibition in 2010. It was hosted in Putrajaya. “Since then, I have seen an increase in demand for my art again,” he said.
Yusuff believes that he is the only living wheat straw artist in Malaysia and he feels that he has the responsibility to create more awareness about the craft, not only within the country but also overseas. No doubt, it is a popular craft in countries such as China, Vietnam and even Mexico, but for Yusuff, whose primary theme is Malay ‘kampung’ life, it would be his personal success if the younger generation here takes up the craft.
At this point, only one of his children, Anuar, has shown interest and an aptitude for it. Anuar, 53, who left his banking job some ten years ago, recently started helping with the sale and promotion of Yusuff’s wheat straw art. He said he is ready to take over the business when the time comes. Since helping out his dad, he has already brought in some innovation to the business. For one, Yusuff doesn’t glue straws on black cloth mounted on cardboard any longer. He now does it on black mounting boards instead.
Black is the only background colour used in Yusuff’s art. He explained, “The contrast brings out the colours of the shiny straws. I obtain my straws by buying straw hand fans and reuse the straws for my creations. Straw’s natural colour is light brown but I dye them with batik dye for different colours.”
With Anuar’s modern business strategy, Yusuff’s art pieces are also now available for sale on the internet to reach a larger market. The pieces are priced from RM6 to RM800, according to the different sizes and complexity of each piece of art.
Note: An edited version of this article [Scenes from Straws] was published on 24th September, 2016 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.