Artist, amateur boxer and seventh-generation Australian Muslim, Abdul Abdullah is one of Western Australia’s best young artists, but says he’s also been perceived as ‘the bad guy’ – due, in part at least, to his chosen religion.
Richard Bell is an astronaut who has arrived on a planet (Australia) gone mad. So he is depicted by artist Abdul Abdullah in his latest artwork, I wanted to paint him as a mountain, specifically for the 2014 Archibald Prize.
Abdul’s painted the Aboriginal artist and political activist looking down on Australia from space, holding a discerning, critical gaze – one that draws judgment upon our country and says, “You’ve messed it all up”.
It’s this critical stance that has divided opinion on Abdul and his work. Challenging the status quo through powerful and symbolic artworks has seen him win the Blake Prize for Human Justice, but has also put him at the receiving end of some racially fuelled criticism.
“I have always been politically minded,” Abdul says. “Before I studied art, I studied journalism. It wasn’t until after I painted Waleed Aly and received hate mail for the first time that I felt confident enough to address these feelings in my practice.”
The painting in question (a portrait of lecturer, political commentator, rock musician and Muslim Waleed Aly) made Abdul a 2011 Archibald Prize finalist. It also caused immense backlash from certain members of the public, a reaction Abdul says has empowered him to take a stand.
“There are segments of Australian society that will never accept me as an Australian. I have a duty to let these people know where they can shove it.”
Abdul says he always has to justify his name, colour and religion – something
he achieves through canvas, print and media. “As an artist who is developing
a platform, I believe I am obligated to use that platform to at least attempt to effect positive change,” he says. “If I were satisfied by the world around me, then I probably wouldn’t be making the work I do.”
That work, which ranges from boxer Anthony Mundine sporting a golden crown to a black-painted Abdul sticking his finger up at his viewers, speaks powerfully of oppressed, culturally bound minorities. It’s a view we aren’t exposed to often in a middle-class, predominantly white society, but it’s one that Abdul continues
to explore and share.
For instance, take his entry into the 2014 Black Swan for Portraiture Prize, a powerful portrayal of his mother.
“She has been painted under a black light and wearing a glowing fluorescent band loosely around her neck,” Abdul says. “The work is called My mother has put up with a lot. It speaks about my mother’s life in Australia and the difficulty of raising headstrong children in a foreign country. It also speaks about the persecution and racism she has suffered in this country for the colour of her skin and her religious attire.”
Abdul has seen his family, as well as other Muslims in Australia, isolated due to events such as the September 11 terrorist attack. He reveals that his mum doesn’t wear a traditional headscarf anymore.
“She is amazed how much nicer to her people are,” he says. “She told me the ladies at the checkout smile at her now.”
It’s these perceptions that Adbul hopes to quash. His latest venture, The Bad Guy, is a five-minute documentary produced by Art X West for ABC Arts, and delves deeper into the underlying problems between race, religion and politics. “The title refers to perceptions of ‘the other’, and specifically young Muslims like myself. Since 9/11, I believe if there is a ‘bad guy’ in the popular imagination, he looks like me and has a name like mine.”