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