UNDER the shadow of the looming Petronas Twin Towers, the home of the Heritage of Malaysia Trust (Badan Warisan Malaysia) stands inconspicuously — its modest bungalow built in 1925 located in a vast compound that seems far removed from the busy traffic and roads that snake around its periphery.
Championing the preservation of our nation’s historic buildings and places, the registered charity has been playing a pivotal role in advocacy as well as in research and documentation of Malaysia’s heritage assets.
Old buildings, ancient palaces, traditional kampung houses have been part of the nation’s landscape for centuries — often overlooked with their once glorious beauty faded into disrepair and neglect.
There is something melancholic about a place pregnant with memories and past glories — of the days that were and the rich history that was made of the people who once walked on our soil.
These buildings represent the past history and culture of Malaysia, possessing intrinsic values within their architecture which amalgamated traditional beliefs, science, religion and culture in every swirl, curve and lines of their structure.
In 1985, artist Ilse Noor was commissioned by Shell Malaysia to create 24 etchings based on Malaysian buildings with heritage value.
Armed with pencil and paper, Ilse traversed through the country, visiting these buildings and brought them back to life again with her unique art. Her works have drawings at their core. Expressive and lively, Ilse’s sketches not only provided the foundations for her prints, they also demonstrated the joy of capturing a moment on paper.
Warisan Nusa: Malaysian Cultural Heritage was birthed out of that endeavour, putting to print Ilse’s breathtaking etchings of Malaysia’s cultural heritage — of houses and structures built by hands of our ancestors which stand proudly to this day.
In a landscape dominated by glittering skyscrapers and modern cul-de-sacs, these ancient abodes are now slowly fading into the background.
Ilse’s renditions serves as a reminder that the loss of the some of the most innovative structures of our past would create a black hole in architectural history. If we lose this part of our incredible history, the next generation would have lost the extraordinary period of incredible optimism and determination to use architecture to transform society.
This commission marked the importance of preserving dying building traditions and helped garner awareness in the conservation of Malaysia’s historical buildings.
Ilse’s journey in recording history in art begins across the ocean, at a Bidayuh Longhouse and the Kuching courthouse, and ends at the ruins of Kota Datuk Purba and Makam Tok Pelam in a cemetery in Terengganu.
The 78-year-old artist writes eloquently in the preface: “As a traveller, traversing from west to east, from sunset to sunrise, adventurer in an unknown land, explorer on a journey into the past, I am a link in a 2,000 year-old chain of traders and conquerors, whose ships were borne on the northeast and southwest monsoons. Like them, I will cross oceans, penetrate jungles, explore the interior, invade villages and intrude into the houses and lives of the inhabitants. My weapon is my pencil and the trail I leave behind will be of pictures and notes.”
A DIFFICULT PAST
There seems to be no one about, but as I walk up the stairs up the bungalow into the surprisingly cavernous-like interior, I spot Ilse in one of its rooms, bent in frowning concentration over the sea of books piled on a large desk.
She looks up with a slight smile when I knock gently on the door and beckons me in. She doesn’t waste any time in small talk. “What do you want to know about me?” she asks bluntly.
“Everything!” I stammer. And she breaks into a smile. Birdlike and alert beneath her steel grey hair, Ilse is by turns humorous, serious and frank.
She was born in Wipperfurth, Germany in 1941. “Back when I was growing up, we had nothing… no pencils, no paper… nothing!” she recalls wryly.
“No pencils?” I repeat incredulously. “It was the war!” she counters. Her memories have the patina of childhood: vivid and colourful. She was part of the Kriegskinder or “war children”: so-called because she grew up in Germany during World War Two.
“Those were hard times, with the men including my father being drafted to fight,” she says. “So it was the women who rose up, took charge and raised their families.”
Life during the war was tough, she recalls, adding: “It took an hour to walk to school, and back then, we had slates to write on. Not pencil and paper!”
The writing slates she refers to, were used by children in one-room schoolhouses to practice writing and arithmetic. Her fascination with lines and curves, she tells me, began back in school.
“We learnt cursive script, and I enjoyed learning that,” she shares. Grabbing a pen, she shows me how they learnt to write. “The cursive comes from the emotion and the pressure of the pen,” she explains, smiling.
Ilse’s earliest inspiration was from German realism. “Ernst Fuchs and Alfred Kubin used to interest me,” says Ilse, “As a child I found Die Andere Seite (The Other Side) on my mother’s bookshelf by writer and illustrator Alfred Kubin. It was the illustrations in this book that fascinated me,” she says.
When she reached secondary age, Ilse had to travel to Bonn, Germany to further her studies there. “I did not enjoy it,” she admits matter-of-factly, laughing, adding sheepishly: “I didn’t like learning ya!” But she enjoyed pencil drawing, “…because I liked how I could control the pencil and pour my emotions into my art.”
Years later, her mother offered to pay for horseriding and art lessons. She studied art under portrait artist W.M. Stucke. “I was his first student,” she recalls. “He wasn’t keen on teaching because he wanted to have that time for himself. So he made life difficult for me!”
She was instructed to sit at the attic, and paint the skyline of Bonn again and again. Unbeknownst to her, this was a remarkable form of training that she’d soon be thankful for.
“I was told to just draw the outlines of the city. I had to sit and draw over and over again until I got it right and that took me hours,” shares Ilse, eyes sparkling. “I wasn’t even provided an eraser. Just pencil and paper!”
Drawing from life, she explains, starts with the acquisition of visual information from the original scenery. This information is transformed by the brain into a motor programme, a process known as visuo-motor mapping. This results in the execution of the motor programme in the form of a line drawn on the paper.
To draw this line, the hand holding the pencil must move along a path shaped exactly like the original line, with all points of the path relatively positioned to each other as they are on the original. This discipline under Stucke’s tutelage, remains ingrained in Ilse to this day.
“It’s a training I greatly benefited from. I liked it so much because I was challenged. I just wish that artists these days learnt how to do this. Here you are not forced to observe,” she laments, adding: “That skyline of Bonn impressed my teacher. I still have that drawing today.”
Ilse later went on to study art under Professor Franz Nagel at the Akademie der Bildenden Kunste Munchen. Pencil drawing, she decided, was too easy for her.
“I wanted to paint but certain colours gave me a migraine,” she confesses. It’s then that I realise that all of her art are in subtle earthy tints. Her beautiful renditions of Malaysian heritage buildings are displayed on all of the walls within the room, with some propped on makeshift easels.
“These are my colours,” she says, waving at her work. She was later advised by her Professor to pursue graphic fine arts. “And so I did,” she remarks, shrugging her shoulders.
It was not long after that Ilse met her future husband and emigrated to Malaysia. “I’ve been in Malaysia for fourty years,” the mother of two daughters tells me, smiling.
Ilse has been using a unique technique for the past 50 years. Intaglio etching is associated with fine lines and details so minute that she uses a magnifying class to etch in the finer lines. The results are on canvas, but Ilse’s aquatint engraving requires her to use acid to etch out the images on to a copper plate.
This is popular amongst French impressionists, leading to a technique called peintre-graveur (painter-engraver) where the painting is done by pressing the engraving onto the paper as opposed to directly painting on the canvas.
Today, her unique prints reside in galleries, museums, banks and private collections all over the world, from Malaysia and Germany to the US, UK, France, Singapore, Indonesia, Egypt and Bosnia.
“It’s very difficult work,” she admits. “But I chose it because it challenged me. Drawings became too easy for me so I set my bar higher.”
You must be your own biggest critic, I suggest. “Yes, but you need that to get what you want,” she replies. “If you want to do things correctly, you have to be critical with your eyes.”
Apart from group and solo exhibitions worldwide, Ilse has also written three books, illustrated posters, magazines and various children’s books. Other commissions include etchings of Selangor’s Istana Bandar, and a number of pieces for Malaysian Airlines’ 50th anniversary. She also produced etchings for Malaysian filmmaker U-Wei Haji Saari for his film Hanyut, based on Joseph Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly.
Ilse’s initial commission by Shell was to come up with 24 etchings of heritage buildings which was reproduced in a calendar back in 1987.
In 1985, Ilse Noor’s road trip to document these buildings got her travelling around the country to draw these traditional structures. “This is where drawing Bonn’s skyline in the early years came in handy!” she quips. She’d spend the weekends walking around dilapidated ruins, and getting the feel of the place before sketching and taking down copious notes.
Two years later in 1989, Shell encouraged Ilse to write a book on her experiences during her artwork for the calendar, for Shell’s upcoming centennial celebrations. The limited-edition Warisan Nusa: Shell Book of Malaysian Heritage was published in 1991.
Later she decided to share her journey with a wider audience so additional chapters on Perlis and Pahang, four new etchings, sketches and drawings were added, including an introductory essay written by the anthropologist Tungku Violetta Noor. The book has been republished 2019 by MPH Group Publishing as Warisan Nusa: Malaysian Cultural Heritage.
“These places often evoke a lot of feelings,” she remarks wistfully of her experience.
Istana Bandar in Bukit Jugra, Selangor, she tells me, has been vacant since 1938 and lies hidden away, decaying in a vast, unkempt parkland.
In Warisan Nusa, Ilse writes: “I feel dazed, blinded; tears blur my eyes and through this veil I see a picture, like a vision of Istana Bandar resurrected to its former glory, and I think I hear the distant sounds of music and laughter.”
Combining research and her thoughts, Ilse takes you along with her on a journey to rediscover the historical legacy of these once-glorious structures and along with her artistic renditions, you begin to piece together a picture of Malaysia like you’ve never seen before.
We follow her quest to find unique examples for each Malaysian state. From palaces to mosques, from longhouses to a Chinese mansion, from stately wooden edifices to humble village dwellings, be it derelict or pristine, Ilse manages to reveal the beauty in each structure.
Their significance and rightful place in the annals of Malaysian heritage and history are made prominent by the stories of their origins and how they came to be in their current state.
“There is so much beauty found in these places,” she enthuses. “A lot of the carvings back in those days were an amalgamation of different cultures and beliefs melding together.”
The language spoken through the carvings, she tells me, speaks louder than any dissertation or exposition on culture. It’s different today, she says with a sigh. “Nobody observes anymore,” she laments. “They don’t feel the lines or the textures.”
Ilse’s prose reflects those thoughts, and demonstrates her admiration for the craft, dedication and passion that raised these structures and her sadness at the ruined state of some of them.
Ultimately, she hopes that readers will learn to appreciate Malaysian traditional architecture and the history behind the featured structures — and perhaps be inspired to preserve them — before they vanish forever.
“Culture consists of connections, not of separations. We need to learn and observe from the past, in order to move forward as a nation,” she concludes softly.
Warisan Nusa: Malaysian Cultural Heritage
Author: Ilse Noor
Publisher: MPH Group Publishing Sdn. Bhd.
Available at all major bookstores