Art Detail | Ilham Gallery
Burung Putih Terbang Malam
Burung Putih Terbang Malam

Two white birds are in celestial flight through the night, surrounded by swirls of what resembles the cursives and diacritics of the Arabic alphabet.  In this painting, Arabic, the language of Islam, is a stylistic element used for its visual beauty rather than as textual communication. Siti Zainon Ismail is renowned as both a writer and an artist, and the painting sees her combining the two art forms.  The birds resemble phoenixes, a common motif in Islamic art and mythology. In the painting’s jewel-toned colour scheme and traces of a mountain in the background, it is also reminiscent of the late Syed Ahmad Jamal’s most famous work, Gunung Ledang/Tanjung Kupang (1978).

Acrylic on canvas
105 × 99.5 cm
Credit Line:
Collection of ILHAM Foundation
© Siti Zainon Ismail
About Siti Zainon Ismail

Siti Zainon Ismail (b. 1949, Selangor) is a renowned writer and artist. In 2019, she was chosen as Malaysia’s 14th National Laureate, one of the nation’s highest forms of recognition in the sphere of art and culture. In her youth, she studied art at the Akademi Seni Rupa Indonesia (ASRI) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia before furthering her studies in traditional Malay design at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). She received her PhD from the University of Malaya in 1992. Aside from her roles as writer, academic, artist, she has also held directorial roles in various national institutions. From 1976–92, she taught at the Institute of Malay Language, Literature, and Culture at UKM. 

Further Readings

  • Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. “Siti Zainon Ismail – Sasterawan Negara Ke-14 (2019).” Klik Web DBP. (in Malay) 

  • Siti Zainon Ismail. “Menulis dan Melukis: Writing and Drawing in Malay Traditional Art and Their Impact in Modern and Contemporary Art — A Study of Cultural Values.” Translated by Hasnul J. Saidon. In Narratives in Malaysian Art vol. 1, edited by Nur Hanim Khairuddin and Beverly Yong, 148–66. Kuala Lumpur: RogueArt, 2012.

Learning Section

  • Describe what you see in this painting. What colours do you see? What shapes do you recognise?  Describe the lines you see. What adjectives would you use? Do you notice any patterns or textures? What is the mood of the painting?

  • Calligraphy is an important element in Islamic art. Why do you think writing is given such artistic importance in Islamic cultures? The text tells us the artist is also a writer.  How are the lines she has created similar to arabic texts you have seen? How are they different? Why did the artist not use legible letters and words in this piece?

  • Look carefully at the birds in the painting. What are they doing? What details does the artist focus on? What details has she not included? What is the connection between the birds and the lines that surround them?