Bacalah is the first exhibition by Mohd Noor Mahmud, popularly known as Mat Nor, since the presentation of his seminal 2014 series, Siri Rasa Bertuhan. The exhibition features two multi-panel mixed media paintings based on two Muslim prayers: Surah Al-Alaq (Iqra’) and Surah Al-Fatihah. Translating into ‘read’, Bacalah is an apt title for an exhibition centered on the presentation of text-based works. With these contemporary calligraphy pieces, Mat Nor continues to redefine the shifting constructs of Malay-Muslim identity, packaging it in a way that resonates with a new generation of Malaysians entering the twenty-first century.
A LOOK BACK
A Kelantanese artist, Mat Nor has long drawn on his cultural identity for inspiration in his mixed media practice. From the beginning of his artistic career, he has looked at the craft traditions of Malaysia’s East Coast as a springboard into exploring ideas of the effects of globalization and contemporizing heritage. The symbol he turns most often to in this effort is batik, as has been seen since his inaugural series Siri Imajan. A key body of works in the development of Malaysian contemporary art, Siri Imajan explored the effect of globalization and an increasingly homogenous Western identity on cultural strongholds such as Kelantan. Showcasing a switch in the daily uniform from batik to denim jeans, Mat Nor spoke about the anthropological role textile traditions have in documenting history. In the process, he introduced batik as a key part of his visual vocabulary, setting the stage for a career-spanning signature.
Another signature developed during the Siri Imajan period was that of Mat Nor’s highly textured canvases. During the artist’s early period, he achieved texture mostly through the use of paper mache, pasted over large areas of canvas. However, in the vein of all successful mixed media artists, Mat Nor consistently conducts extensive investigations into the effects of various mediums. Such innovative research has always allowed the artist to set himself apart from his peers visually, and led to the textural sawdust, acrylic and glue compositions that make up the foundation of the works presented here at Bacalah.
A technique first explored during the production of his Siri Gua series, Mat Nor’s highly-textured, sawdust-based aesthetic gained prominence with Siri Rasa Bertuhan. Audiences were enthralled by the finely detailed, multi-coloured facades bearing the Divine Names of Allah. In Iqra’ and Al-Fatihah, Mat Nor continues working with this relief-like base, beginning with a gummy blend of sawdust and glue, slathered over a primed surface. At the end, he adds paint, until a thick, marbled layer is achieved. The result is a soft foundation, similar to a viscous paste, which is easily impressionable. Mat Nor imprints batik patterns into this wet surface using antique copper batik ‘chops’ from his personal archive, in a process mirroring the batik textile production that is a crucial cottage industry for Kelantan.
By drawing a parallel between the traditional batik production method and his contemporary process, Mat Nor encourages his audience to view traditional craft through the lens of postmodern thinking. As such, this examination creates an engagement of heritage and contemporary creativity, and in the process enriches a national cultural artifact with a sense of belonging to current audiences. Mat Nor understands the importance of this linkage in documenting Malay-Muslim culture today, and achieves it through the use of his antique batik chops. The stamps themselves are made up of pretty floral patterns in copper, yet the artist utilizes them in a novel way, so that their appearance is almost abstract. Through cropping and the creation of new compositions, he imbibes the well-known floral representations with a quality viewers are not accustomed to. A resulting visual conflict is instrumental in drawing the audience in for a closer look, causing the reconsideration of a once familiar image and the position of heritage in current times.
IQRA’ AND AL-FATIHAH
Mat Nor’s exploration of Malay identity has recently been extended to include the community’s ethno-religious characteristics with the introduction of calligraphy. Calligraphy is a popular icon in infusing an Islamic identity into art. After all, the written word has always been at the center of Islamic visual culture. Arabic text first appeared in Mat Nor’s portfolio with the series Siri Rasa Bertuhan, and since then he has quickly established himself as a forerunner of the contemporary calligraphy genre in Malaysia. Malaysian artists are unique internationally, in their ability to extend the artistic potential of calligraphy beyond that of a legible word; rather they use it as a pictorial element to reference a multitude of issues. Mat Nor demonstrated this beautifully in Siri Rasa Bertuhan, using the Asmaul Husna (the Divine Names of Allah) to study religion and gratitude, as well as the dynamics of Islam and Malay culture. He resumes this thread now with the production of the two new body of works shown at Bacalah: Iqra’ and Al-Fatihah.
As a continuation of an earlier concept, there are some familiarities within these two new pieces for those acquainted with Mat Nor’s practice. However, having perfected his calligraphic technique through the five-year production of the 101 works embodying Siri Rasa Bertuhan, he now pushes himself to work in a more complex technical, and conceptual vein. Each of the two titles consists of several canvases; Iqra’ is made up of five and Al-Fatihah is made up of seven. The number of panels corresponds directly to the number of lines within the two prayers that inspired this body of work. Whereas his earlier calligraphy works simply featured a single name inscribed across their center, Mat Nor now writes out entire sentences in challenging compositions. It is crucial at this junction to remember that Mat Nor declares himself to be a painter, not a calligrapher, pointing to his method to substantiate this differentiate. Calligraphy tends to be written in a fluid, free-hand stroke. Mat Nor deviates from this by painting his text with the use of large stencils, handmade from thick cardboards. As his confidence has grown, so have his compositions become increasingly decorative and complex, demonstrating a mastery over his self-developed calligraphic process.
Each of the two prayers the artist has chosen plays an integral role in the history and practice of Islam. Iqra’ features the first five lines from Surah Al-Alaq. Beginning with the command “Iqra!” or “Read!”, they form the first of the Divine Revelations received by Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.) as he meditated in Cave Hira’ during the month of Ramadan. These five lines contain several valuable pieces of information for Muslims, beginning with the commandment from which Islam is established. These lines give the cognizance of Allah, as the single Creator and Lord, who granted the power of thought and sense to mankind. Coupling this information with the fact that the first word revealed is ‘read’, further determines the value on knowledge and educating oneself in Islam, verifying the religion as an enlightened one.
Al-Fatihah, as its title suggests is based on the Al-Fatihah prayer. A succinct seven sentences, it is the first chapter of the Quran and often referred to as “The Opening”. Indeed, on a practical level this is an apt description, as the Al-Fatihah serves as the opening prayer of the Quran, the first prayer recited in each raka’at (cycle) of the daily prayers, as well as several other everyday occurrences in a Muslim’s life. There is a deeper meaning to the epithet however, as the Al-Fatihah is also viewed as a conversation between a believer and Allah, an idea Mat Nor alludes to, by inscribing each line on a separate canvas.
The practice of keeping calligraphy in the home by Muslims, traditionally serves both decorative, as well as talismanic purposes. There is a belief that seeing, touching or reading the word of Allah will protect a person from evil, and act as a conduit for good fortune and blessings. Talismans are sometimes also charged with not only shielding, but also guiding. Mat Nor explores this aspect by choosing two key prayers that reinforce opening oneself up to accept faith. Indeed, Muslims are often reminded of their ability to make conscious decisions, such as accepting Allah, and deciding to practice their religion, and this is an underlying concept in both Surah Al-Alaq and Al-Fatihah. In depicting these two verses over a series of canvases, the artist encourages his viewer to stop and reflect, on the meaning and intent behind each individual sentence, thus fulfilling the spiritual obligation set to calligraphers.
Mat Nor presents to his audience, two of the most famous Islamic phrases in a recognizably Malay context, through the use of colour, texture and pattern, via a highly contemporary technical process. In creating his signature batik-infused textural surfaces, he endows each panel with an individual identity due. Mat Nor chooses vivid shades for his backgrounds, that wouldn’t typically be selected to sit together when using the scholastic fundamentals of colour theory. This colour clash comes together beautifully, representing a typically Kelantanese attitude to colour. By merging his conventional craft techniques and religious identity, and then juxtaposing it against a contemporary artistic practice, Mat Nor articulates the ethno-religious identification of the Malays, and their position in an increasingly borderless world.
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Bacalah by Mohd Noor Mahmud.