Tides of war

Mat ali mat Som’s pas­sion for metal and his­tory shines through in his lat­est ex­hi­bi­tion.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ART - By DARYL GOH star2@thes­tar.com.my

MAT Ali Mat Som looks rather amused when asked if he has a punch­ing bag in his art stu­dio. Or if he needs to reach a boil­ing point of Travis Bickle pro­por­tions to chan­nel his artis­tic vi­sion.

He tries to gather the rea­sons be­hind the ques­tions. He does men­tion that he prac­tises silat gayung and silat lincah at home, which is the small town of Se­menyih in Se­lan­gor. It is a pas­sion he shares with his wife and three chil­dren.

Slowly, the be­spec­ta­cled artist re­alises that most peo­ple would like to know where he gets the rag­ing en­ergy that fu­els the ag­gres­sion and pas­sion very much ev­i­dent in the war­rior sculp­tures of his sec­ond solo ex­hi­bi­tion, Un­sung He­roes, now show­ing at the Mu­seum of Asian Art, Univer­siti Malaya.

“My sculp­tures aren’t nec­es­sar­ily about blind ag­gres­sion, nor are they about blind loy­alty,” re­veals Mat Ali, who com­bines his tal­ents as an artist, his­tory buff and art men­tor to great ef­fect.

Through­out the univer­sity gallery, Mat Ali has as­sem­bled his metal-based ma­te­ri­als in his unique way. Each sculp­ture (which strad­dles or sits or rests on a stone) is ded­i­cated to a war­rior hero de­rived from our na­tion’s sto­ried past.

An­chored by 14 sculp­tures, the ex­hi­bi­tion is also ac­com­pa­nied by his paint­ings and sketches, which share a com­mon nar­ra­tive with his metal hand­i­work.

“Not ev­ery­thing is panas hati (an­gry) in that sense. But there is a fight­ing side in each of them. I tried to cap­ture each war­rior’s brav­ery, un­bro­ken spirit and loy­alty in de­fend­ing their land, free­dom and rights from colo­nial in­vaders like the Bri­tish, and the Si­amese hun­dreds of years ago.”

Mount­ing them on flat pieces of stone, Mat Ali moulded into shape the heroic likes of Tok Ga­jah, Hang Je­bat, Pan­glima Hi­tam, Mat Salleh, Pen­dekar Li­dah Hi­tam, Mat Ki­lau and many more.

“Even th­ese war­riors had strug­gles ev­ery day to de­fine and de­fend their sense of pur­pose and in­tegrity. But they fought and lived by a code. That’s how we re­mem­ber and re­late to them.”

Com­ing across like a mix of Hong Kong artist Mah Wing-Shing’s dis­tinctly Asian-cen­tric war­riors and Amer­i­can fan­tasy and sci­ence fic­tion artist Frank Frazetta’s mus­cu­lar fig­ures, the Un­sung He­roes sculp­tures boast a par­tic­u­larly ar­rest­ing pres­ence.

If any­thing, the great J. Allen St John (au­thor Edgar Rice Bur­roughs’ favourite il­lus­tra­tor) looks to be one of Mat Ali’s key in­spi­ra­tions through­out his ca­reer.

Mat Ali, 39, who re­gards him­self as an out­sider in lo­cal art cir­cles, took nearly four years to com­plete this ex­hi­bi­tion.

This UiTM fine art grad­u­ate, who started pur­su­ing art full time in 1997, will be the first to ad­mit he isn’t some­one chas­ing con­tem­po­rary art no­to­ri­ety, but rather has stuck to his trade grounded in re­al­ist art and semi-ab­stract work.

“This is my pas­sion ... sculp­ture work is close to my heart. I like work­ing with met­als. It might be a lonely field here, but I will carry on im­prov­ing my tech­nique.

“I do re­alise that most lo­cal con­tem­po­rary art has to fit a cer­tain pro­file ... you know, the more bom­bas­tic the is­sues, the more peo­ple look out for such art­work.”

Mat Ali isn’t too fussed about not ap­pear­ing in swanky gal­leries or at­tract­ing the cock­tail set. From sculpt­ing for group shows at fea­ture gal­leries to cre­at­ing com­mis­sioned work, he has steadily made a name for him­self.

Upon fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion, his di­verse work in Un­sung He­roes is lit­er­ally solid and shiny enough to stand out in the mod­est sur­rounds of the Mu­seum of Asian Art.

The progress from his first silat-in­spired solo sculp­ture show, Den­dam Tak Su­dah in 2009, is most ap­par­ent.

At a glance, his new works have grown in size – big­ger sculp­tures, more im­pact and out­stand­ing work­man­ship. Gath­ered met­als in­clude cop­per, tin, alu­minium and brass, while wood, deer horn and quarry rocks (as the sculp­ture base) com­plete this project.

Un­doubt­edly, th­ese Un­sung He­roes sculp­tures are crafted, il­lus­trated and ex­plained in ex­quis­ite de­tail (from anatom­i­cal pre­ci­sion to the range of weapons, head­dresses, feath­ers, fa­cial ex­pres­sions, bulging veins, etc), mak­ing this ex­hi­bi­tion an ab­so­lute must for those in­ter­ested in metal sculp­ture de­sign as well as his­tory en­thu­si­asts.

The pro­duc­tion time line for each work av­er­aged a month or two, says the artist.

Mat Ali hand­picked his he­roes from the great his­to­ries of Kedah, Malacca, Negri Sembilan, Sabah, Sarawak and Pa­hang. And he doesn’t dis­count a se­quel for this se­ries.

“This ex­hi­bi­tion re­vis­its the en­dur­ing lega­cies of our for­got­ten he­roes, and their roles in a se­ries of con­flicts through his­tory that have made them such le­gends.”

One of the ear­li­est sculp­tures made was Hang Je­bat, who is well known for his venge­ful re­volt against the Malacca Sultan whom he served.

Lit­tle known war­riors like Ren­tap and On­toros, from Sarawak and Sabah re­spec­tively, have also been re­alised in­tri­cately in sculp­tured form to re­mind us of their roles in fight­ing Bri­tish colo­nial rule.

“In our haste to ab­sorb his­tory lessons in school, we of­ten jot down the names of our na­tional he­roes, where the men came from ... and lit­tle else.

“Un­sung He­roes is my way of pre­sent­ing, and putting a con­text of time and place to, th­ese war­riors, or keep­ers of the na­tion,” says Mat Ali, who re­ferred to Malay jour­nals and In­done­sian ref­er­ence books to re­search his sculp­tures.

“If this ex­hi­bi­tion en­ables the ca­sual viewer of art to bet­ter ap­pre­ci­ate the role and con­tri­bu­tions of the na­tion’s he­roes, it will have served its pur­pose,” he hopes.

Un­sung He­roes is show­ing at Mu­seum of Asian Art, Univer­siti Malaya, till Jan 7. Ad­mis­sion is free. Open­ing times: Mon­day to Thurs­day, 9am to 1pm, 2pm to 5pm; Fri­day, 9am to noon, 2.45pm to 5pm. Closed on week­ends and pub­lic hol­i­days.

Artist Mat Ali Mat Som will be hold­ing a sculpt­ing workshop at the ex­hi­bi­tion venue on Jan 4 (10am on­wards). Bring your own mod­el­ling clay. Spa­ces are lim­ited; to book a seat, e-mail stephen­menon@gmail.com.

The eye-catch­ing ren­tap, which shows the Sarawakian war­rior in full bat­tle cry as he charges for­ward. Leader of men: Tok Ga­jah cap­tures the much-feared Pa­hang war­rior in his full glory as a na­tional hero who re­sisted bri­tish rule. un­sungHeroesS­tud­ies01 cap­tures mat ali’s thought process as he sketches his ideas in acrylic on pa­per. Th­ese pieces were quickly snapped up at the ex­hi­bi­tion.

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