gallery of selected works 2000 - present


what goes on in the background...

by default

Wall installation – with intricate shadow effect

Wall installation – with intricate shadow effect




A picture of Hishamuddin Hussein (the current Malaysian Education Minister) waving the keris as a symbol of Malay supremacy at the 2005 UMNO Annual General Meeting. This photograph was widely published.

A typical keris

Image of proposed sculpture composition

Title: By Default
Year: 2002
Medium: Mild steel & varnish
Dimension: 195x85 cm

Juror’s Award ‘The Young Contemporaries Awards Exhibition’ The National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 2002Participated in travelling European exhibition organized by the National Art Gallery of Kuala LumpurShown in ‘Festival Asia’ Casa Asia Tour of Barcelona & Madrid, Spain, 2003.Shown in ‘Of Shadows & Images’ exhibition, Malmo Konstmuseum, Malmo, Sweden, 2003.

As published in BAKAT MUDA SEZAMAN 2002 YOUNG CONTEMPORARIES AWARD exhibition catalog, The National Art Gallery, Malaysia, , ISBN 983-9572-57-1, pp 1.16-1.17.


The steel sculptural work is preoccupied with the utilization and association concerning the kris as a notion of ‘self-representation’ through its symbolic and iconic properties. This gesture is seen as an attempt towards achieving a design solution that is habitually instinctive, but almost reaching its limits of saturation and stagnation in terms of producing original and contemporary ideas. It is a cynical and yet serious observation regarding the manipulation of kris as a ‘design solution’ that seems to be suitable for almost any sculptural public work or design. Personally, it seems the use kris raises several profound issues beyond the mere notion of representation or symbolism (regardless of how abstract its form can be developed in artistic terms), such as those associated with contemporary belief system and religious concerns.
Obviously, the iconic significance is often ambiguously favored by ‘designers’ and/or ‘decision-makers’, and yet it seems deplorable among the general Malaysian society when some of these sculptures are finally built on site. For instance, the final public work raises the issue of human-scale relationship to objects as small as the kris itself, that needs to be considered further for the design solution to be feasible aesthetically as well as practically. As a result, a greater concern on the impact of providing a ‘one-for-all’ solution in design, is the fact that major public sculpture being in disharmony with the surrounding environment and hence failing to achieve the desired objectives that the sculpture was supposed to convey in the first place. Kris should not be seen as a panacea for all design problems and yet it has been the preferred design solution time and again, as demonstrated by this artist as an artwork that delivers…even if its by default.



The tentative title for the yet to be produced work is ‘bapak keris’, a steel sculptural work concerning keris, that seems to be the answer to all sculptural works on keris. It is a cynical comment on our preoccupation with utilizing the traditional keris as a ‘design solution’ that is suitable for almost any sculptural public works, especially among the majority malay Muslims. Keris has a long and embedded historical relic with the Malays, so much so that the keris is regarded as more than just a weapon. At a superficial level, if keris is as important for the safety of the contemporary Malaysian public, then surely guns are even more relevant for today’s pluralistic global society, and yet guns are not cherished in many parts of the world to an extent that huge sculptural guns are built prevalently in the public domain. But the keris seems to take an exception in this mode of understanding. Personally, it seems the keris raises several more profound issues than the usual mere notion of representation or symbol (regardless of how abstract a keris can be made into in artistic terms), such as those associated with belief system and religious responsibility (refer accompanying research paper).

The iconic significance is often unequivocally favored by the ‘designers’ or ‘decision-makers’, and yet it seems deplorable among the general Malaysian society when some of the sculptures are finally built on site. For instance, the scale of the final public work itself in relation to the spatial form of the keris, raises the issue of human-scale relationship to objects that needs to be considered further for the design solution to be feasible visually as well as practically. As a result, a much bigger concern on the impact of providing a ‘one-for-all’ solution in design, is the fact that major public sculptural work seems to be a simple cut-and-paste strategy where lack of research is apparent in the final production of the work. In addition, this is usually related to the sculpture being in disharmony with the surrounding environment and hence failing to achieve the desired objectives that the sculpture was supposed to convey during its inception stage.

As for the work itself, the dimension is proposed to be approximately 120x90x15cm. Materials are mild steel, rusted and unprotected. The work will comprise of hundreds of small keris in varying sizes, each between 5-10cm, welded against each other forming a collage of sort. A void that forms the silhouette of a keris, at a much bigger scale but in the same shape, will be the ‘keris of all keris’. It exists, but cannot be seen. When viewed, people can feel the keris in their heart and gut as they recognize the negative form at a glance, and yet it is oblivious to the sensation of the touch, rendering the physical presence of an actual ‘bapak keris’ as meaningless. A physical solution that seems to solve the composition itself by providing a focus and a focii, and yet, it does not exist physically. At this stage, the final work is designed to be hung on the wall as a conventional painting, but an attempt to also have it free standing is also being looked into. However, the outcome of whether it can be free standing is not an so much as an engineering concern, but rather an artistic justification. This is because the keris itself is a two-dimensional object that hardly justify for it to be three-dimensional.

Therefore, the work can be construed at many levels of understanding. In addition to the deep and profound comprehension that only the public and critics can decide once the work is actually complete, the work is also made to address some obvious and straight forward concerns. For instance, some of the smaller keris will be imprinted with the name of place/location where an actual public sculpture of the keris can be found. This will give a rough idea on the magnitude of utilizing keris as a public feature, bringing about the impact of our preoccupation with keris in numeral terms as well.


installation display at the National Art Gallery, Malaysia. *note the pillars (columns), incorporated as a part of the work display, establishing a metaphorical relationship with the pillars of Islam.

detail - 'rear' of frame, correct jawi text spelling

detail - frontage halal jawi text (reversed)

detail - frontage haram jawi text (reversed)

proposal concept


As published in The Young Contemporaries 2004, Edition 01/2004, The National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, ISBN 983-9572-94-6, pp. 40-41.


In the wake of 9-11, Islam and Muslims around the world have increasingly become subjects of global discourse (if not hatred and prejudices), open for public scrutiny, debate, dissection, investigation and interrogation. The subsequent response within the international and local contemporary art scenes as well as the accompanying discourses are interesting to be observed.

Edward Said has warned us against a sweeping, uncritical and singular representation or reading of Islam that defies the multi-faceted character of its followers, practices and translations into daily lives. Despite such warning, predictable and cliché expositions of Islam as a rigid, archaic and problematic religion that functions as a fertile ideological breeding ground for potential terrorists have become too common in the media that they may be taken as natural and inevitable.

Nuances of similar nature (such as: ‘Islam is not compatible with the new world order – it is the ugly ‘other’ that must be ‘corrected,’ ‘neutralized,’ ‘liberalized,’ ‘reinterpreted,’ or ‘mocked,’ ‘ridiculed,’ and worse, ‘eradicated’) are not uncommon to be traced in contemporary artworks that use it as a subject of concern. It is also not uncommon to stumble upon Muslim artists (somehow highlighted in the international art scene), who echo similar sentiment.

In the wake of 9-11, many Muslim artists around the world are beginning to respond directly or indirectly to various aspects of Islam through their works. Hopefully, the responses will help to create a more balanced discourse on Islam. Along this line, it has to be noted that several Malaysian artists (and art writers) have been known locally and internationally for their explicit and implicit remarks on Islam (or some aspects of it) in their artworks or writings about art. Joining the list is Abdul Multhalib Musa through his Waswas.

Waswas represents Multalib’s deeply involved inquiry into the concept and misconception of halal (lawful) and haram (prohibited). Multalib’s personal experience throughout the whole episode of preparing the work up to the process of installing it in the National Art Gallery epitomizes the uncertainty and complexity in the interpretation and implementation of the law.

As stated by Multalib in his statement, the work implicates the National Art Gallery (NAG) as a government institution in a country which Islam is the national religion, thus the need to have his work “cleansed in order to be considered permissible for exhibition or handled by Muslims.” If the statement is to be read as a tasteful sarcastic or cynical remark on NAG’s uncertainty or lack of professionalism in dealing with the issue, it leaves much to be desired as one is always reminded of how NAG as an ‘Islamic’ government institution has spent millions of Ringgit to purchase artworks (I believe that none was requested to be cleansed) by Malaysian artists (of various ethnic and religious background, including ‘difficult’ artworks by artists who claimed to be marginalized, sidelined or outcast by the mainstream ‘Islamic’ establishment).

Nevertheless, Multalib’s chosen subject of discourse and his deeply felt commitments in presenting his work exemplify both critical and creative reading of the subject. In observing Multalib’s current stance and track record, one may suspect that he has a strong potential to be an international star in the near future. Perhaps, Multalib can contribute proactively to the discourse on Islam in the international art scene.

All the best!


Susulan dari 9-11, Islam dan penganutnya di seluruh dunia semakin menjadi subjek wacana global (juga kebencian dan prejudis), terbuka dan dibogelkan untuk ditinjau, diperbahas, dibedah, didedah, disiasat dan dipersoal oleh masyarakat dunia. Reaksi-reaksi susulan dalam arena seni rupa kebangsaan dan antarabangsa dan juga wacana yang mengiringi arena ini agak menarik untuk ditinjau.

Edward Said pernah memberi peringatan terhadap representasi dan pembacaan bersifat mono, tidak kritikal dan terlalu menyeluruh mengenai Islam. Pembacaan sebegini hanya akan menidakkan sifat kepelbagaian yang terdapat pada penganut Islam itu sendiri, mahupun amalan-amalan dan terjemahannya dalam kehidupan seharian. Walaupun diberi peringatan sedemikian, pendedahan yang sudah dijangka dan klise terhadap Islam sebagai agama yang kaku, jumud, kuno, bermasalah dan sebagai pusat pembiakan ideologikal untuk bakal-bakal pengganas sudah menjadi terlalu lumrah dalam media sehingga pandangan-pandangan sebegini semakin diterima sebagai suatu yang semulajadi dan tidak dapat dielakkan.

Nada yang lebih kurang sama (seperti Islam tidak seiring dengan aturan dunia baru – ia adalah ‘orang lain’ yang hodoh, yang mesti ‘dibetulkan’, ‘dineutralkan’, ‘dibebaskan’, ‘ditafsir-semula’ (oleh siapa?), atau juga ‘diejek’, ‘dipersenda’ dan lebih parah lagi ‘dihapuskan.’) sudah menjadi lazim untuk ditemui dalam beberapa karya kontemporari yang menggunakannya sebagai subjek persoalan. Tidak menghairankan juga sekiranya kita terserempak dengan pengkarya Muslim (yang nampaknya sering ditonjolkan dalam arena seni rupa antarabangsa), yang melaungkan gema yang hampir sama.

Susulan dari 9-11, ramai pengkarya Muslim seluruh dunia mula memberi reaksi secara langsung atau tidak langsung kepada pelbagai aspek tentang Islam menerusi karya mereka. Moga-moga segala reaksi ini dapat membantu membentuk wacana yang lebih berimbangan tentang Islam.

Sejajar dengan perkembangan ini, perlu dinyatakan bahawa terdapat beberapa orang pengkarya Malaysia (dan juga penulis seni rupa) yang diketahui pernah membuat pernyataan-pernyataan secara terus-terang atau berlapik terhadap Islam dalam kancah seni rupa kebangsaan dan antarabangsa. Abdul Multalib Musa adalah salah seorang pengkarya yang mula menyertai senarai pengkarya sebegini.

Waswas mewakili penglibatan bersungguh Multalib dalam meninjau permasalahan berkenaan dengan soal halal dan haram. Pengalaman peribadi Multalib sepanjang episod menyediakan karyanya hinggalah ke proses memasang karya tersebut di Balai Seni Lukis Negara mencerminkan kerumitan dan kesangsian yang melanda penafsiran dan perlaksanaan hukum yang berkaitan.

Seperti yang telah dinyatakan oleh Multalib dalam kenyataan bertulisnya, karya ini melibatkan Balai Seni Lukis Negara sebagai sebuah institusi kerajaan yang agama rasminya adalah Islam. Oleh itu, karyanya perlu “disamak (atau dibersihkan dengan kaedah penyucian yang betul) untuk membolehkan ia dipertimbangkan untuk pameran atau disentuh oleh pekerja-pekerja Muslim.” Sekiranya kenyataan beliau ini ingin diterima sebagai suatu sindiran atau ejekan sinis yang pedas dan lazat terhadap keraguan Balai Seni Lukis atau kekurangan daya profesionalnya dalam menangani persoalan yang dibangkitkan, kenyataannya tidak begitu menggigit kerana kita seringkali diingatkan bahawa Balai Seni Lukis sebagai sebuah institusi kerajaan Islam telah membelanjakan berjuta Ringgit untuk membeli karya-karya (yang saya pasti tidak perlu di’samak’ atau di’suci’kan) oleh para pengkarya Malaysia (dari pelbagai latarbelakang etnik dan agama, termasuk karya-karya oleh para pengkarya ‘rumit’ yang sering merintih kepada dunia luar bahawa diri mereka sentiasa dipinggir, diketepikan atau dianak-tirikan oleh institusi-institusi arus perdana Islam.)

Namun demikian, subjek wacana yang dipilih oleh Multalib dan komitmennya yang tinggi dalam mempersembahkan karyanya menjadi contoh kepada pembacaan yang kreatif dan kritikal terhadap sesuatu isu persoalan. Sekiranya ditinjau pegangan Multalib yang terkini dan juga rekod penglibatannya, kita boleh menjangka bahawa beliau mungkin berpotensi untuk menjadi seorang bintang seni rupa antarabangsa pada masa akan datang. Barangkali, Multalib dapat memberi sumbangan proaktif kepada wacana tentang Islam di persada seni rupa antarabangsa.


(with minor edition for the benefit of non-Malaysian & non-muslim readers)

Artist: Abdul Multhalib Musa
Title: waswas
Year: 2004
Medium: laser cut steel plate that has been cleansed (samak) and timber frame
Dimension: 70x307x225cm (whole installation display area)

Initially, the Arabic calligraphy or khat design was to be cut on steel plates at a laser cutting workshop. Upon completion of the cutting process a few days later, the artist, went to the workshop to pick-up the finished work. It was during lunch hour and the artist noticed some of the non-Muslim staff were consuming non-halal food in the workspace area. As a Muslim, the artist was concerned of the possibility of 'spiritual' contamination, and it was felt that this was an unlawful (haram) situation according to the basic teachings of Islam.

This incident is significant considering the type and intention of the work to be submitted for the Young Contemporaries Awards 2004, wherein the work may be exhibited for the final round of judging at the National Art Gallery of Kuala Lumpur. The site in which the work is to be shown is also important because the building is a government institution in which Islam is the national religion of Malaysia. Hence, the work should be cleansed according to the Islamic practice if it is to be exhibited in this particular site.

According to Islam anything that has been positively ‘tarnished’ by the heaviest classification of waste (najis mughalazah) or even if there is reasonable doubt (waswas), needs to be cleansed accordingly if it is to be ‘used’ by a Muslim in any way. In light of the various uncertainties pertaining to the status of the steel plates during the production process, this warranted for the work to be cleansed (samak) which has been done prior to framing.

Based on the intention and process being noted, the work therefore deals with the concept and misconception of halal (lawful) and haram (prohibited) that exists among the general Malaysian society. As a point of departure, the composition of the work is drawn from the basic Islamic principles pertaining to what this notion entails. Accordingly, it is intended to express some of the circumstances pertaining to the current state of confusion, uncertainty, and lack of knowledge that leads to allowing what is halal to become haram, and haram to be deemed as halal. It also attempts to emphasize some of the difficulties in trying to clarify such notion on a more general level, given that Malaysia is a multi-religious society that is recognized as an Islamic state. It further attempts to highlight some of the complexities in its interpretation and implementation strategies based on the current state of affairs in this country, especially within the context of public policy.

For exhibition in the National Art Gallery of Kuala Lumpur, the artist saw an opportunity for the work to be better understood through the way it was displayed, so that a different viewing experience is achieved. It was felt that the installation should allow for the viewer to be able to engage the work from a varying number of entry points in the confronting issues being raised, literally and metaphorically.

There are obviously many levels of theoretical concept and subject-matter in relation to this work. As a delimitation however, only the approach to understanding some of its basic tenets will be elaborated here. To begin with, the khat or Arabic text of halal and haram are cut out on the two steel plates. The negative figure-ground space left implies that nothing physical is evident and yet the meaning it carries is still vital to its integrity, whereby the work dictates a certain manner of caring and handling from an Islamic point of view.

Hardly noticeable, the hanging of the work just slightly above an average eye-level height reflects a minor difficulty or an unaccustomed viewing manner for a conventional artwork that has been properly framed. The arrangement of the two framed khat pieces is also significant in that both are juxtaposed facing against each other while the viewer is sandwiched in between. Hence, the two cannot be seen from this single central location. Thus the viewer is obligated to maneuver oneself around the work in order to see both simultaneously.

Another important element to the installation is that the two steel pieces are suspended between two pillars of the exhibition space. Literally, these pillars are the foundation of this building, and figuratively the foundation of this institution. Building upon this, parallels can be drawn to the pillars of Islam. Analogies to concepts of purity are further established with the white finishing and minimalist character of the columns. Depending on where the viewer is standing in order to look and understand the two metal pieces, these pillars can be seen as either an obstruction, or a framework to accentuate the solidarity of the artwork. By examining the ways in which the khat is to be, or is being observed, it is hope to encourage viewers to better understand the authoritarian nature of this mode of visual representation - the boundaries of art and iconography, belief and supposition.

©IDN Magazine article 2007: Creative City

‘CREATIVE CITY ~ Kuala Lumpur: Small town networks, big city ideas’.
by Adeline Ooi, © IDN Magazine, number 2, vol 13, 2007, pp 46, 52-53.

If you speak with Abdul Multhalib Musa, he will tell you that he is not a conventional sculptor. “I don’t toil and sweat blood over my work,” he says. Rather, you will most likely find him behind his computer, trying out new forms or surfing the Internet. Best known for his fine finishing and sleek forms in laser-cut steel, Multhalib is recognised as one of Malaysia’s emerging stars in contemporary art, but he does not see himself as an artist only – “I still consider myself an architect.” This is what he was trained for and his work and identity perch on a unique threshold between art and architecture.

Naturally, given his training, his process of realising an idea is driven by an architectural approach, “yet it does not have the constraint architects normally face”. Ideas often begin with something instinctive, an artistic urge if you like, and are later distilled with logic and calculations. Multhalib’s forms are often inspired by nature, clouds, mathematical theories or geometrical shapes, entangled in a complex and symbiotic relationship of binary opposites – the organic with the scientific, the linear with the non-linear, the tangible with the intangible.

When asked to give an insight into his working process, he says: “I like to think that I do not design the final works themselves, but am more oriented towards conceiving the possible relationship between solids and voids, positive and negative space, or the obvious and the hidden. I prefer to consider this process as parallel to generating an organised system in order for the tectonic idea to be workable.” Planning the construction of each form is key: “The planning process is important in the realisation of an idea as practical approaches are required. Just as in architecture, which stresses the importance of ease of construction – and that means using the right materials, minimal wastage and using the right tools for the job.”

Multhalib will also tell you that he thinks his work lacks any particular sense of identity: “It is Malaysian in the sense that it is made by a Malaysian, but that is a superficial association. The forms designed have no association with roots or place of origin, and the lasers and materials I use are imported from Japan. The demands of globalisation have formalised my work. It lacks identity – but only because it is developed extensively through technology. And technology is universal.”

So, does he see them strictly as sculptural forms? “Well, it is said that one way of differentiating art and architecture is their different responses to objective requirements. If art is seen as speculative thinking, then what I am doing must be art by default since everything I do is conjectural, non-functional, and self-directed – though I am not implying that architecture is already art, or vice-versa.”

“Tectonic” is perhaps the best way to explain them in that “the works themselves are certainly ‘end products’ in their own right. Basically, the final built objects are finite, well-defined and are more or less free from the imperfections of the production process. Nevertheless, I still consider the ‘finished works’ to be incomplete, schematic, trapped in the midst of their production, with potential to be further developed. “Seen from this perspective, the work is left as if merely to engage other students and professionals within the field of art and architecture. However, as built and finished works they also have the opportunity to engage the public for whom they were meant and any subsequent unanticipated public.”

shifting boundaries 2008

Here are new works for the WWF 2008 rimbun dahan art for nature exhibition.

Both are mild steel, with 2K paint, and about 2 feet high on a granite base.

> instructions on how to get there is also available here.

>> click here to find out more on how you can contribute to the WWF organization.


Multhalib can be regarded as one of Malaysia's younger leading contemporary sculptors. He has become known for his 'fluid metal sculptures' which seem to have been effortlessly carved out of metal. The contradiction of transforming a hard material into a supple, pliable form, demonstrates his interest in the manipulation of the medium. This in part stems from his educational background - an architect by training. He pursued his Bachelor's Degree in Design Studies from the University of Adelaide in Australia, thereafter obtaining his Bachelor of Architecture from MARA University of Technology in 2000. He has been granted numerous international awards and residencies in recognition of the work that he has done. In 2001 he was selected for the Rimbun Dahan Residency in Malaysia, and the following year was presented with the Award of Excellence at the 6th Oita Asian Sculpture Open Competition in Japan. He was the recipient of the Australian High Commission Residency in 2004, and was commissioned through an international competition by the Beijing Olympic Park City Sculpture Project 2008 to create a major outdoor sculpture for the Beijing Olympics, China. In 2008 he was selected for the Asia 21 Young Leaders Summit held in Tokyo, Japan. Recently his work was selected for the Ordos 11th Asia Arts Festival, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China, and another outdoor work for the Urumqi International Urban Sculpture Symposium held in Xinjiang, China.

Here you can find stuff about his works, thought process, and what goes on in the background...

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what goes on in the background...


gallery of selected works 2000 - present
All photographs on this website are protected under international copyright laws and may not be reproduced, distributed or posted without written permission of the copyright holder(s).
©2014 Abdul Multhalib Musa is the owner and author of all the material contained in this website, unless otherwise noted.