ABDUL ABDULLAH explores themes of belonging and alienation in the context of a Muslim-Australian identity, using his own background as a touch point. His paintings, photographs, video and performative public collaborations operate from a spirit of generosity, while they simultaneously reveal cultural misperceptions about the Muslim-Australian experience. In 2009, he received the Highly Commended in the NYSPP at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra and was named a Perth Rising Star by Insite Magazine. In 2010, he was included in the inaugural Triple J list of 25 Under 25 + Smashin' It. Abdul lives in Perth, Australia.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Your background is in painting, but lately you're taking more of an interdisciplinary approach. Tell me about your interest in portraiture. How did it begin?
Abdul Abdullah: Before I studied art, I studied journalism. I am a curious person, and I am particularly curious about people. Art school for me better satisfied my curiosities and was a more immediate way to address the questions I had. I like people, and I want to understand them. Portraiture seemed like a rational method to pursue. To the chagrin of my lecturers, I painted throughout art school and resisted other mediums. At the time, I wanted to graduate from art school with a practical skill. While painting is still the backbone of my practice, I now see the medium as second to the idea and look to find what processes best suit what I am trying to communicate visually.
OPP: One thing that really stands out for me about your portraits is the consistency with which the context is stripped away from the figures you paint. Mostly they float in blank fields of color, as in King Keanu (2011), although sometimes the light from some unknown source remains on their faces, as in Serani (2012). How does this formal choice reveal your conceptual concerns?
AA: What I am looking to do is find an efficient mode for the consumption of an idea. It is a reductive method that seeks to put across a simple idea quickly. Often the canvas serves the purpose a plinth can serve in a sculpture. I want to direct the audience to what I find important in an idea.
OPP: I find your body of work Celebrations and Gold refreshing in its emphasis on joy and the notion of honoring the individual. Can you talk about this work and how it developed? Is it a reaction to something in the art world?
AA: Celebrations and Gold was my return show to my hometown Perth after almost two years away in Melbourne and Europe. Melbourne was an amazing city with a lot going on, and I found myself only trying to replace the friends I already had in Perth. I began to feel that cities were much more the same than different, and what really matters is the people you love who live in them. This particular body of work was a way of celebrating the friendships I had in my hometown. I painted the people around me who I loved and in the way that I liked to think of them. I put them in crowns and showered them in confetti. In essence, I celebrated what they meant to me. It wasn't consciously a reaction to anything in the art world, but in hindsight, I can see how this was a way of differentiating myself from a lot of the clinical, academic art I was surrounded by in Melbourne and positioning myself unapologetically as the emotional and reactionary artist I am.
OPP: Your most recent photographs were shown at the Melbourne Art Fair in August. They feature you and an older man, and the titles refer to your paternal lineage. Could you talk about this theme in your work?
AA: The photographs featured my father, or likenesses of my father. Lineage is a subject that has become very important to me. I am a seventh generation Australian with a direct paternal link to a convict who arrived here in 1815, after stealing two stamps and a watch chain in London. My paternal line is exclusively of British origin. On my mother’s side, it is Malay. My father converted to Islam in 1972 and took the Arabic name Ibrahim Abdullah. He married my already Muslim mother, and they raised their children as Muslims.
While my roots run deep in this country, I have found myself continuously having to justify my position as both an Australian and as a Muslim. My skin is brown, and I have an Arabic name so people think I must be from somewhere else with values that don’t correspond with Australian values, or they say that I have assimilated well. Both statements are incorrect. My family has been in Australia for 200 years. I haven’t changed to assimilate into Australian society; I have always been the way I am. Even the cable guy that came to fix my internet the other day said, “I saw your name and thought I’d have trouble with you, but you speak English well." This is symptomatic of the broader Australian attitude. We might have opened our borders, but the White Australia Policy, which restricted non-white immigration to Australia, was only abolished 40 years ago. The personal revolution my father underwent when he became a Muslim that same year defined who I am and how I identify myself today. I am an Australian, I love my country, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, but I certainly don’t fit the Aussie stereotype.
OPP: As an American, I'm not sure I know exactly what the Aussie stereotype is. Could you explain what you mean?
AA: The Aussie stereotype, as I understand it, is the white, sun-bleached by-product of British colonization. At best it's the laid-back, rough-around-the-edges Crocodile Dundee type. At worst, it's nationalist, xenophobic and white-supremacist. Australia did not suffer apartheid, but our historical experience is not dissimilar. Indigenous people were not classed as human beings until the 1970s, and the term asylum-seeker has somehow become synonymous with illegal immigrant. The Cronulla riots in 2005 were perpetrated by flag-bearing people fitting this stereotype who claimed ownership of the term Aussie. Placards on the day denounced Wogs, referring intially to Lebanese-Australians. But as the day went on, the term seemed to refer to anyone who wasn't white. Broadly speaking, I wouldn't call those who fit the young Aussie stereotype consciously racist, but rather they are South Park Conservatives, and by that I mean, well-meaning idealists with oversimplified, right-leaning politics. They have an egocentric view of the world that reveals a limited understanding of domestic and international history. They wear Rusty brand shorts and flipflops no what the weather is, and they look like Chris Hemsworth or Kylie Minogue.
OPP: You did a collaborative project with two other emerging Australian artists, Nathan Beard and Casey Ayres, called The Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The project deals with cultural stereotypes and the experience of living in a multicultural society. Explain the historical reference of the project's title and describe the public performance project.
AA: The Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was a collaboration with fellow Eurasian artists Casey Ayres and Nathan Beard for the 2012 Next Wave festival in Melbourne. The title refers to Japan’s geo-political ambition in World War II, called the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." We dropped "East" from the title and made it more inclusive. The project consisted of an embassy for the fictional empire where we the artists acted as hosts or ambassadors. We transformed a space at the National Gallery of Victoria into an orientalized kitsch set that acted as the backdrop for a series of performances and workshops. These included dancers, musicians and performers, as well as experts in different Asian arts and cultures. We wanted to turn a mirror on the exotic and hold it up to the way Asia is consumed by the Australian public. The whole project was tongue-in-cheek, but we were able to reveal some uncomfortable stereotypes.
OPP: There seems to be a precarious balance between irony and a sincerity in the act of performing as ambassadors. This irony-sincerity hybridity underscores what you've said about your experience as a Muslim-Australian, in the sense that it is a synthesis of two things which people often think of as opposing. I'm wondering about the tone of the performances and workshops. Was it in contrast to the "orientalized kitsch set" or in line with it?
AA: It's important that The Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was a humorous engagement with these topics, it was also an earnest investigation that carefully handled different cultural discourses. Our workshops were authentic collaborations with Asian-Australian performers, artists and experts. The set and our costumes were exaggerated facsimiles of the real thing, but our engagement with the people we hosted was sincere and not supposed to be ironic.
OPP: Those gold suits are amazing! Could you talk about the role of costuming and accessorizing in the project?
AA: The costumes we wore for the duration of festival were based on a Prada design and were made while on a research trip to Thailand in 2011. As the ambassadors we decided we were each going to identify with one of the three imagined pillars of our empire: passion, beauty and wisdom. The crowns we chose and our demeanors were designed to reflect these traits. The gold fabric was chosen, because we felt it reflected the kitsch themes of the space and idea.
OPP: What effect did your collaboration in The Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere have on your own individual practice?
AA: While I have been consciously expanding my practice over the last three years, this collaboration took it to places I hadn’t ever imagined. It involved theatre, dance, performance and audience interactivity. We existed in the space as part of the artwork and interacted with our audience as performers. It really revealed to me what is possible when you are trying to communicate an idea and how, when making art, the idea absolutely must be privileged over the medium. At the same time this does not undermine the value of painting, but rather reinforces the reasons I paint when I do and when I use other means of communications as opposed to painting.
OPP: What new idea or project are you excited about right now?
AA: In 2013 I will be exhibiting and working on a body of work that explores the notion of "home." Australia, being a relatively new nation with colonial beginnings has an uncomfortable relationship with this idea. What does "home" mean in the contemporary multicultural Australian context? As a seventh generation Australian, who is also a Muslim and who isn't white, I have mixed feelings about identifying with my nationality. I am an Australian and I love my country, but there is a segment of society in which people claim the same thing but deny my right to do so. I don't have a "mother-country," and if this isn't my home, then where is? I think this question is relevant to an entire generation of Australians who don't identify with bushrangers.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will be teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago).