Suzlee Ibrahim:

Traveling Abstract

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Art Malaysia  Issue 13 (May-June 2011)

Title: Monsoon Series, Road To The Desert (Masterpiece)

Acrylic & Oil on Canvas,150 x 300 cm, 2009


Born in Kuala Terengganu in 1967, Suzlee Ibrahim is one of the nation's most notable abstract expressionism painters. His star continues to rise; also a lecturer and traveler, Suzlee's wide understanding and network of art beyond our borders is translated in riots of colours and brushstrokes on canvas.

      In his childhood, Suzlee would often see his father doing craftwork; drawing before he constructed. That is how Suzlee's love for drawing began. “My father wanted me to be an architect and my mother wanted me to be a teacher, but I wanted to be an artist!”

      Suzlee received his formal art education in 1987 from Institut Teknologi MARA (now Universiti Teknologi MARA) and worked in an advertising agency. He then delved into the music industry where he illustrated covers for CD albums that needed a surrealist style. This interest in surrealism led to a love for abstract art.

      “A rock group called May requested me to do an illustration of a big clock hanging in the sky, with a volcano in the earth,” recalls Suzlee, “From there, I produced surrealism but at times I didn't like to follow instructions as it made me feel bored.” Constantly catering to clients' needs soon became unbearable for Suzlee, who switched careers to teaching, which he is doing to this day. His last position in commercial art was as a Visual & Art Director.

      When Suzlee returned to his hometown in Terengganu, he chanced upon a newspaper article about turtle poaching. “I felt saddened, so I painted the turtle, depicting it with only brushstrokes. You could still see the turtle's form, but sometimes it disappears entirely, and  became abstract. This is how my movement series began in 1994.” That year, he had already begun teaching. He later joined Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) in 1997, teaching Fine Art. In the same year, Suzlee had an encounter that would change his art.




1997: Suzlee & Robert Rouschenberg



       “In 1997, I met Robert Rauschenberg and spoke with him,” Suzlee shares, “He was here to do an exhibition, having travelled all over the world and going to so many countries. I fell in love with painting because of Rauschenberg, I wanted to be like him and worked hard to achieve that. Though Malaysia is a small country, but the inspiration he gave was so big.” So inspired, after teaching Suzlee would return home to paint into the am's.The fruit of his efforts was his first solo exhibition in 1998.


Seeing More of the World

      The next big event in Suzlee's life was in1999 when he moved to England to accompany his wife who was furthering her studies there. With only the barest of basics in the English language, Suzlee settled in Birmingham and became a full-time artist. As he picked up the language, he met many artists from around the world and in the year 2000, began exhibiting overseas. Prior, he had never had an international exhibition, except in Singapore.

      “The art environment in England is very different; they appreciate art very much. I travelled from Birmingham to London almost every 2 weeks. I worked part-time at McDonald's to  buy art materials and travel to the Tate Modern and surrounding galleries.” There, he saw for the first time, actual deKoonings and Pollocks; “Before I had only seen them in books, so seeing the real things changed my life.”

     By the year 2000 his paintings were selling and in 2002 he travelled to Denmark, Germany and Holland for 40 days. “I met a big collector in Frankfurt and he invited me to see his collection that comprised of Dali and Max Ernst, amongst others, all underground in his house. He told me the value of his collection and it convinced me that I could survive as a full-time artist.” Nevertheless, Suzlee decided to continue teaching while painting.

     Since then, Suzlee has had 18 solos and is now preparing for his 19th. Like his idol Rauschenberg, Suzlee's works are widely exhibited; England, USA, Denmark, Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, Brazil, Cuba, Spain, Canada, China, Japan, Argentina, Greece, Poland, UAE, Australia, Bangladesh and Nepal. He is also active as a competition judge, curator and advisor on art.

     Upon returning to Malaysia in 2001, Suzlee continued to upkeep and build up his networking: “Every Christmas I send cards, and I am very active in mail art. That way, we can exchange ideas and artworks; if they invite me to contribute for an exhibition, I can send my mail art. To this day, I have amassed five thousand artworks in mail art sizes; A3 and the largest in A2.” Clearly, art is also an investment for Suzlee.

     “Networking is a very important thing. If you want to be good, you must have international-level networking,” Suzlee stresses, “In 2005, I was invited by Emaar properties to paint 9 paintings at the Marina Dubai. While in Dubai, I met the organizer of Artists Respond Globally, of which I became a member.”

    Having lectured in UiTM for 16 years, Suzlee then joined the National Academy of Arts, Culture & Heritage (ASWARA), “There are students of many races and I am very comfortable and happy here.” ASWARA has even provided him his own well-lit studio space.

 Title: Movement Series, Drum Beat (Masterpiece)

Acrylic & Oil on Canvas,




Painting Emotions & Experiences

    Many of Suzlee's series are based on his travels, “For me, moving from one place to another gives me new ideas. When I went to Tokyo I produced the Sakura series and  when I visited the Great Wall, I produced the Wall series... the Sahara is my latest destination and series.”

     After the Movement series, Suzlee embarked on the Belantara series (2003), Space series (2005/2006), Foundation series (2006), Ombak series (2007) inspired by the sound of crashing waves, Batik series (2007/2008), Root series (2008), Sakura series (2008/2009), Wall series (2008/2009), Melody series (2009) inspired by music, the Monsoon series (2009/2010) was full of coldness while the parallel Sahara series (2010) is fiery and restless.

     The Movement series remains special to Suzlee as it is “one that came deeper from my heart.” he has thought constantly of the plea of the turtles and it resulted in a deep conviction to love nature and animals. “My artist statement then was that movement is life; every living thing moves. Series such as Sahara is geographically inspired, just from my brief experience of it, but the Movement series is from my heart.”

     The road as an artist was not all smooth sailing for Suzlee; one of the biggest storms in his art career was caused by someone he respected and admired. “There was a year when I did not produce a single painting. An ex-lecturer whom I respected had suggested to me to switch to another genre when he found out that I was actively producing abstract art. His reasoning was that even kids could paint abstract art. I was upset that someone with his qualifications couldn't believe in art.” Fortunately, Suzlee's then-girlfriend encouraged him to continue doing what he believed in, for despite that lecturers qualifications, who bought his art? “Now that the National Art Gallery and Bank Negara collects my paintings, I have proven myself. However, I lost connection with him as I do not want to be connected with people like that.” As shown, an artist's emotional constitution can be very fragile, and especially for one who 'throws his emotions on canvas'.

 Title: Sahara Series, Golden Land ii

Acrylic & Oil on Canvas,




1+1 doesn't necessarily mean 2

     Suzlee's reason for painting abstract art is that: “[It] is something that everyone can appreciate and understand using their own knowledge and feelings. For me, there is no need to understand the meaning behind the painting or to go deeper into it, because only the artist knows what he is doing. Viewer's need only feel it.” In accordance, Suzlee likes to say that “Art is not 1+1=2. It is not straightforward.”

     “I've been in the art scene for 24 years and found that abstract is very difficult to produce because of changing emotions; you keep changing colours depending on how you feel one day to the next.” This is why Suzlee loves to listen to music while he paints, though sometimes he needs total quiet, depending on his mood. “But I try to paint everyday. Even if I don't go into my studio, I will do a small sketch, sometimes with just a pen. But painting larger sized canvases gives me more freedom and relaxation, and I also love working in large sizes, normally up to 10 feet.”

    Suzlee divulges that his new series is not on canvas: “I want to move to another medium to produce something different from the previous. Normally I will just change the colours and textures but now I want a new surface.” Accordingly, Suzlee is now working on something very different indeed: painting on fibreglass sculpture. This is for a Singaporean event called Elephant parade, which involves a hundred artists from around the world (of which 5 are Malaysian) and includes an auction on 11/11/11.

     Suzlee prefers to be known as a painter than a lecturer, as “lecturers impart ideas but painting is producing something.” When asked if he enjoyed teaching, Suzlee replies: “If I stayed in my studio 10 hours a day, I need to talk to someone to rest my mind. Teaching is important as I am able to throw ideas at my students and their questions spur my mind to think of new ideas and techniques. Sometimes, they give me inspiration, I even ask them to critique my works. For me, discussion is also important, whether with students or friends, in fact my wife is my big critic also.” Every few weeks, Suzlee invites friends to his studio to seek opinions for his work. “If I only do what I think is right, I can't improve, so at least I need to know what other artists think about my work. If you have good artwork but you can't market it, it's no use. Artists must share their art and be close to galleries.”

     On that note, Suzlee says that one of the most difficult aspects in his artistic career was marketing his artwork. “In the early days, in a year sometimes I don't even sell a single painting.” Another difficulty was that international galleries require artists to be represented by a local gallery, which is why Suzlee began to work exclusively with Pink Guy gallery. Such an arrangement also prevents scams: “I was once invited for a group exhibition in Slovenia through someone online. I sent my paintings but after the exhibition, when I wanted my paintings back and contacted them they said they cannot speak English! Four paintings gone!”

2005: Suzlee in his studio 


Methods in Abstract Expressionism

      So how does Suzlee paint? “The first thing I do is find a subject matter,” he explains, “Whether textures on the brick wall or the landscape of the Sahara. I make a few hundred sketches and then I select a few to transfer to an illustration board, as large as A2 size. Then I will choose again to transfer to the canvas.”

      This methodical and selective process to produce such expressive and seemingly spontaneous artwork, perhaps reflects Suzlee's commercial art background. “Sketches are very important for me, but normally the final product is not the same as the sketch because your mind is always thinking new things during the process. I let my mind be whatever it wants, do whatever it wishes.” Sketches are the key to start the ignition: “You have to plan what you want to produce; anything you want to do, you must prepare. Without sketches, I face my blank canvas and don't know what to paint!”

      Suzlee learned about abstract art by studying three artists “I love the spontaneity of Jackson Pollock, the brushstrokes of de Kooning and Franz Kline's composition. I've always refered to these artists, but now I've already established my own stlye.”

      In Suzlee's point of view, the art industry in Malaysia is looking better and better, “Twenty years ago, it was difficult to find a gallery. The fact that universities offer Fine Art means there is a market for that, and parents are much more open to letting their children study art. The market is not difficult to break into, especially with the internet and so many art collectors and companies wishing to buy art for investment.” Suzlee also notes how the government has allocated large funds for the creative industries.

     Suzlee's concluding words is something he always tells his students: “To have a future in art, you need to look forward but you must also look behind to the past as a reference.”


Suzlee is represented by and contactable via PinkGuy Art Gallery.


Teks by Nikki Liaw (


All rights reserved by Dunia Seni Lukis Sdn. Bhd.




“If I only do what I think is right, I can't improve, so at least I need to know what other artists think about my work. If you have good artwork but you can't market it, it's no use. Artists must share their art and be close to galleries.”

- Suzlee




Suzlee Ibrahim, who recently was awarded by the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (National University of Malaysia), Tokoh Seni ‘Citra Kencana’ 2010.







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