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Jamila at her desk

Speaking Through Art

Diagnosed with autism at the age of four, like many children with her condition, Wan Jamila Wan Shaiful Bahri faced difficulty in verbal communication and social interaction.

Jamila (R) and her mother, Noorhashimah Mohamed Noordin
Jamila (R) and her mother, Noorhashimah Mohamed Noordin

Jamila’s mother, Noorhashimah Mohamed Noordin, said, “When Jamila was born, I was working as a lecturer at University Technology MARA (UiTM) and at the same time, running my own architectural firm. I was also active at the Malaysian Architect’s Association (PAM) as a speaker and was involved in the Board of Architects (LAM). I was totally in the dark about autism, so it was a very difficult time for me.”

Jamila concentrates on her painting
Jamila concentrates on her painting

At four years old, Jamila began communicating with her family by drawing out her feelings. When she was happy, she would draw a smilie girl. Usually, it was a girl with tears rolling down her face. One thing in common about these girls was their long flowing hair, like Rapunzel, now Jamila’s very own trademark, apparent in many of her artwork.

Early childhood intervention programmes helped Jamila overcome development delays, and she attended a primary school that provided a programme to handle special children like her.

Jamila at her desk

After school, Jamila would be busy doodling everything that had happened in class. Jamila’s parents could decipher from these drawings if she have had a good or bad day, allowing them to delve into her mind, better understanding her thoughts and emotions.

Through the thousands of doodles produced, many with just her forefinger on an application which she downloaded by herself onto her  iPad, Noorhashimah felt that Jamila should be encouraged to draw more as there was evidently a hidden talent in her.

Jamila's signature Kebaya Girls
Jamila’s signature Kebaya Girls

Although Jamila was able to speak by the age of ten, albeit in short sentences, she continued to create intricate and detailed art pieces of everything that she observed, felt and experienced.

Jamila’s collection of childhood art included her personal interpretation of the people she met and events of everyday life: her friends, teachers, school trips, holidays and various activities that she was involved in, like dancing, swimming and travelling.

Jamila’s love for dancing is expressed on paper in the form of twirling figurines of herself and her classmates, including dance steps, almost like a dance guidebook for beginners.

Jamila's art gallery at home
Jamila’s art gallery at home

A recent trip to Langkawi’s Kilim Geological Park resulted in tens of pieces of mosaic fishes, her current fascination.

Jamila received coaching in art, mathematics and science from her mother since she was 10 years old in 2012. Last December, Noorhashimah together with a local artist, Khalid Bin Mohd Sapari, started to train Jamila with various techniques and equipment to further improve her natural drawing skills.

Khalid visits Jamila at her home in Shah Alam weekly for three hours to teach, guide and check on her progress in her art direction.

Along with 16 other artists, Jamila and her mentor were involved in the Merdeka Live Art Painting Exhibition at 1 Utama Shopping Centre organised by Art Market Malaysia. The project was in conjunction with Malaysia’s 60th National Day celebration. Jamila was the only ‘special’ artist to be selected to participate in the exhibition. At 15, she was also the youngest.

These days, when the teenager is not at school, she is at home with brush in hand, painting for hours at a time. Like any passionate artist, Jamila spends extreme hours working on her art, when the mood strikes.

Jamila, who is the fourth of five siblings in her family, recently held her first public showcase at the Independent Arts, Converge & Connect (IACON) in TM Convention Centre, Kuala Lumpur, where she successfully sold her first piece of A4-size art for RM1850.

Since then, there seems to be no stopping Jamila, as she began receiving invitations to display her work at art-related exhibitions.

In July, Jamila won a Poster Drawing Weekly Competition at the National Art Gallery, which required her to draw live for three hours. Her win gained her a spot at the Grand Final Competition happening on 9th September, 2017.

Noorhashimah, who is now retired, plans to convert her former office space into an art gallery for Jamila, as her artwork continues to fill their home.

It is heartening to see that Jamila has a direction in life through art despite her circumstances. Noorhashimah shared, “We don’t deny that it was an extremely challenging and painful journey caring for a child with autism, especially when she was younger. However, once we understood that Jamila is a visual thinker, rather than a language-based thinker, we began to adapt to her, and not lead her. In fact, she changed the way we think and do things, in a positive way.

“Any parent who is facing a similar situation should study the child and to discover whatever hidden talent he or she holds. Every child is indeed special in his or her own way.”

Note: An edited version of this article [Speaking through ART] was published on 2nd September 2017 in The Malay Mail.

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