Written by Zena Khan

Monabukelisa is a 2014 painting by the acclaimed contemporary realist painter Fadli Yusoff. Measuring five feet by six feet, it is a reproduction of the Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo Da Vinci in the artist’s signature style. Fadli uses the iconic image as a basis to explore his own limits within figurative art, a subject he has ruminated on throughout his career.

A half-length portrait of a woman, the Mona Lisa has been described as “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world.” Painted between 1503 and 1506, it is an icon of Renaissance art and testament to the skills of Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci was known for his scientific experiments as well as his art, and the striking realism of the portrait was seen as a result of his in-depth studies on human anatomy. Da Vinci’s studies on light and colour theory are well-documented, and apparent in Mona Lisa. The Renaissance artist captured the light on the curves of the face, casting a glow over the central figure and endowing an appearance of realism that has stunned audiences until modern times. Furthermore, his perfection of the sfumato technique is apparent in the imperceptible transitions between light and dark, shade and colours. This technique was a break from the Florentine tradition of outlining images that was the norm during this period. The breakthroughs Da Vinci made in figurative art through his understanding of anatomy, colour theory and light have had a large impact on Fadli, and formed the basis of Monabukelisa.

Fadli is celebrated within the contemporary Malaysian art industry as one of the greatest figurative painters of his time; yet in a twist, this gift is also the source of one of his greatest struggles. A devout Muslim, Fadli turned away from figurative art for a time after reading The Ruling on Photography based on Islamic Law according to Fatwa Issue. Concerned that he was contravening the teachings of Islam by producing realistic figures, he spent eleven years devoting his practice to landscapes and abstract subjects. The draw of his true calling as a figurative artist proved too great and following further research on the subject, he returned to realism in 2007. Fadli has spent most of 2013 and 2014 in furtherance of his technical skills, which resulted in the series A Day In Kota Lama. This body of works primarily focused on the perfection of the chiaroscuro and sfumato techniques, satisfying an inner desire to push his technical abilities. Confident in his skill level, he now turns to developing new techniques within his creative practice, exploring figurative representation through systems that, while avoiding realism, will endow his work with an authentic appearance.

Monabukelisa follows on aesthetically from Tribute To Amron with the use of lines inspired by Ibrahim Hussain’s way of working. While Tribute To Amron featured lines swirling across the canvas for purely aesthetic reasons, Monabukelisa stems from the idea that these lines can be applied to break down the figurative form. Much in the manner of Da Vinci, Fadli is embroiled in a search for fresh techniques in order to elevate his artistic practice. The title Monabukelisa translates into “Not Mona Lisa”, and given Fadli’s experiments in abstracting the form, it is an apt title. From a distance, viewers will see the Mona Lisa but upon drawing closer realise she is a tudung-clad woman instead. The background is filled with a landscape as in the original painting, but is again updated to fit in with the artist’s contemporary experiments with silkscreen printed texts overlaid. These texts are literary accounts of the inspiration behind Monabukelisa, and form an oral documentation of the complex thought process that led to the creation of Fadli’s latest painting.

Despite re-embracing figurative painting in 2007, Monabukelisa is an indication of Fadli’s continued reservations of working in the realism genre, and the inner turmoil that exists between his talent and his conscience. As the basis of his training has been in Western art principles, it is apt that he uses one of the most iconic symbol of Western art traditions to illustrate his prodigious skill level. Given Da Vinci’s reputation for creating new techniques within established art traditions, the Mona Lisa is a fit starting point for Fadli to push his own creative limits. Monabukelisa is a beautiful expression of Fadli’s personal beliefs, values and struggles, and hints at the beginning of entirely new directions within the portfolio of one of the most gifted figurative artists working in Malaysia today.


Title: Monabukelisa

Artist: Fadli Yusoff

Size: 183 cm x 152 cm

Medium: Acrylic on Jute

Year: 2014


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