Written by Zena Khan
Alhamdulillah is a mixed media on canvas work by popular contemporary artist Mohd Nor Mahmud, or as he is popularly known, Matnor. Following on from his recent series Siri Rasa Bertuhan, this five-panel work continues Matnor’s studies into the link between craft and cultures in eastern states of Peninsula Malaysia.
Understanding the traditions of Kelantan, where Matnor has lived most of his life, is essential to understanding not only his artistic practice but also the importance of his work within a contemporary Malaysian framework. Kelantan is often referred to as the ‘cradle of Malaysian culture’ due to its ability to preserve and maintain Malay culture. Both artisan crafts, such as Songket weaving, silversmithing and woodworking, as well as performance arts such as wayang kulit and dikir barat is still prevalent in the state today. At the same time, Kelantan is known for being a strongly religious Islamic state. Alhamdulillah was created as part of a study into these two parts of Kelantanese identity: the definition of the Malays as an ethno-religious community, and the description of Malay culture via highly recognisable cultural iconography.
A triptych, Alhamdulillah has seven columns of different colour breaking up the length of the work. Together they form a vibrant, textural background. The textures on Alhamdulillah are created via Matnor’s signature style of mixing acrylic, sawdust and glue into a thick paste, which he primes over his canvas. The artist then works pattern and detail into the paste using antique batik chops, from his carefully curated collection of antique chops. Matnor’s discussion on Malay culture in contemporary times is beautifully exemplified by this technique of organising the traditional floral patterns in entirely new presentations. The grainy surface of the canvas itself causes an abstraction within the motifs, infusing the familiar floral representations with an altogether fresh aesthetic.
Laid over the textural batik-inspired background in Arabic calligraphy is the phrase Alhamdu Lillahi Rabbi ‘Alamin (All the praises be to Allah, The Lord of the ‘Alamin). The first verse of the first Surah of the Quran, it is one of the sentences most commonly repeated by Muslims in their daily lives. Combining it with a highly Malay motif, Matnor comments on the deep intertwinement of religion within the Malay culture, particularly in the philosophical eastern states of Peninsula Malaysia. Matnor is part of the growing contemporary calligraphy movement in Malaysian art, and his ability to use calligraphy as a meaningful symbol instead of simply as a mere pattern speaks about the state of contemporary society. Interestingly despite the obviously Islamic connotations of Arabic calligraphy, Matnor’s work attracts audiences across all religious and cultural groups. This can be seen as a reflection of the infusion of Malay communities into urban environments, which is a direct result of government policies aimed at educating the rural communities. As such, Alhamdulillah demonstrates the role of the Malays economically and culturally in twenty-first century Malaysia.
Matnor’s relevance within Malaysian art today lies in his ability to juxtapose craft traditions and innovation. While his works appear serene and almost typically Malay, they are the result of a highly dynamic, self-discovered process, resulting in an extremely original portfolio of work. Alhamdulillah fulfils all the expectations of a mixed media work in a contemporary Asian society; combining the formal aspects of art creation with experimentation to speak about the contradictions of convention today. The inclusion of a key Islamic phrase roots the work firmly in discussions of ethno-religious Malay identity, describing the Malay culture in a manner that appeals to a wide cross section of Malaysian audiences.
Artist: Mohd Noor Mahmud
Size: 142 cm x 412 cm (Triptych)
Medium: Acrylic on Sawdust on Canvas