Abdul Ghani Abdul Hamid, a prolific writer, artist and Renaissance Man

Abdul Ghani Abdul Hamid at an exhibition of his works at the National Library building in 2011. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Abdul Ghani Abdul Hamid at an exhibition of his works at the National Library building in 2011. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

The Cultural Medallion recipient was a prolific poet, artist and mentor to many

Abdul Ghani Abdul Hamid, who died at home on Sunday on his 81st birthday, was a prolific poet, painter, dramatist and cartoonist who not only inspired his peers but also groomed new generations of arts talent.

Widely referred to as a "Renaissance man" for his body of art and literary work, the father of four is perhaps best known for the non-profit arts group he co-founded in 1962 and led till 1984, Angkatan Pelukis Aneka Daya (Apad) or Association of Artists of Various Resources.

He was also a prolific writer of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, winning two major honours in 1998, the South-east Asia Write Award and top Malay literary prize Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang. A year later, he was awarded the Cultural Medallion.

He leaves a legacy of hundreds of poems, dozens of paintings, drama scripts with theatre group Perkumpulan Seni and two definitive non-fiction books on art and architecture in Singapore.

He is survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters. He had been in ill health for a while, according to his son, Kamal.

A stroke in 2008 reduced his ability to write and he died after prolonged fever and a second stroke about three weeks ago.

Artists and family members agree that Abdul Ghani was synonymous with Apad - son Kamal credits his architect career to drawing lessons from his father and recalls helping out with art exhibitions organised by the group.

Now housed at Aliwal Arts Centre, the group under Abdul Ghani's leadership encouraged Malay artists to experiment with modern trends such as Cubism and abstract art in the 1960s; taught art to children in Malay-language schools and held regular exhibitions that were supported by pioneer artists such as Georgette Chen and Liu Kang.

He established the semi-regular Apad medal to recognise excellence in the arts and recipients include artists Anthony Poon and Tan Swie Hian.

"He was my mentor. We received guidance from him not only in terms of visual arts, but also arts management," says arts organiser Abdul Rahman Rais, 58, who was Apad's president until last February and has been part of the group since Abdul Ghani taught him art in secondary school.

"He was an extraordinary person who contributed a lot to society," says current Apad president Kamal Dollah, 46. "He's a tough act to follow."

Apart from grooming new artists through the association, Abdul Ghani held various appointments, including as a member of the National Arts Council from 2000 to 2001.

He wrote hundreds of pieces of poetry, fiction and nonfiction even while working full-time for the Public Utilities Board as a clerk until age 55. Though he studied in the English-language at Telok Kurau School and Raffles Institution, most of his works were in Malay.

Writer Anuar Othman, 56, calls him the "Wordsworth of Malay poetry" and says the late writer's works in Berita Harian inspired him to try writing short stories.

Poet Rasiah Halil, 58, says: "To me, his works speak volumes of his commitments to the arts, his community, his country and humanity at large. I like a number of his poems like Pengembara (The Traveller), Murah (Cheap) and many of his poems about nature and the places he grew up in."

Indian dance choreographer Santha Bhaskar, 75, was twice inspired by his poem Tercokak (Ripples) to create dance performances, including last year's Rasa & Dhwani at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. She plans to revive the show soon, saying: "I think his poetry will live forever in everybody's mind."

His works appeared in Malaysian literary journals Dewan Sastera and Dewan Bahasa. In the 1970s, he had an arts column in Singapore's Malay-language Sunday newspaper Berita Minggu. He also drew a comic strip for the newspaper and other Malay magazines under the pen-name Lazuardi.

"It's not glorifying him to say he was a Renaissance Man," says senior librarian Juffri Supa'at, 46, who co-curated an exhibition of Abdul Ghani's works at the National Library building in 2011. He adds that the late artist was also a prolific photographer, whose photos were invaluable in setting up exhibitions such as the 2012 tribute to late Malay writer Masuri S. N.

Abdul Ghani's 1960 book Sekilas Pandang Senilukis Dan Perkembangannya (A Glimpse Of The Arts And Its Development) is also considered the definitive guide to the history of Malay arts in Singapore, while others applaud his insights into mosque architecture here in the 1990 work Seni Indah Masjid Di Singapura (Art Of Mosques In Singapore).

Novelist Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, 64, says Abdul Ghani was a pioneering critic of Malay art in the 1950s and 1960s. "I applaud and admire him because he was English-educated but his contribution to Malay literature and arts is fantastic. He was very cultured, very gentlemanly, one in a million."