hy did you decided to become an artist? Is there a creative gene in your family? It appears that way from an outsider’s perspective.
I was the kid who was always drawing and reading books, I suppose that’s where it all starts. We didn’t had a TV in the house until I was 17, my older brother and sister always drew pictures so it was only natural that my younger brother and I would follow on, in the end it was us two younger siblings who ended up becoming artists. I only actually became an artist after graduating from uni in 2012, although I spent many years working in various creative industries as an illustrator, designer and model maker before deciding to make the jump into art. I got tired of solving other people’s problems so I created my own, haha! Being an artist has been something that I always planned to be from my early teens but it took until I was 35 before I could actually call myself an artist. My younger brother going through Art School was a big impetus for me deciding that it was time to go back after a fourteen year break from it. I think it was really beneficial for me to take so long, I underwent a fairly intensive period of skill building for over a decade before I felt ready.
Your work Wednesday’s Child which currently features on Antidote’s homepage is an exploration of your childhood memories and experiences of growing up as a Muslim child in Victoria Park in the 1980’s. At what age did you start to become aware of your identity and your ‘otherness’ and what was this experience like for you? Is it something that you discussed openly with your family, or was it more of an internal awakening?
I’m a firm believer in seven year cycles so if I were to put a date on it I’d say about seven years old, around 1984. As a kid you just accept and adapt to the world around you, especially as you start to get an idea of boundaries, rules and different expectations. The idea of having a different set of cultural values, identity and beliefs to nearly everybody around me was just part of my existence growing up and it took a while before that sense of difference really became apparent. Kids just want to fit in and nobody wants to be seen as weird, I’d get angry when people made negative comments about me and my family and I ended up embracing the idea of difference as a defence mechanism, if people saw me as weird I felt it gave me license to be weird. Within the family we were expected to absorb whatever the world threw at us, we were meant to be humble and not make a fuss. That’s something we struggled with a lot more as we got older and the world became a more hostile place. My mum is a particularly resilient woman who totally understood what it meant to be an outsider, she has been putting up with so much shit since she arrived here from Malaysia 46 years ago. She gave us a lot of strength in that regard.
“The idea of having a different set of cultural values, identity and beliefs to nearly everybody around me was just part of my existence growing up and it took a while before that sense of difference really became apparent.”
ould you please explain the significance of the rug and the chandelier in Wednesday’s Child?
The rug defines the space as a domestic environment, it’s a Persian copy that is very common in Muslim households. To me the rug has very formal social associations, it’s where we would greet guests and sit together on the floor, it’s where we would gather to eat and at other times to pray. To me the rug speaks to the immediate world and there is a safety and comfort in that. The chandelier reflects ideas of aspiration. Striving to be a better person in this life is an integral part of being a Muslim, it’s like a constant goal that can’t necessarily be attained. Coming to terms with these ideas as a kid makes you question where you are in that spectrum, you see the material things in the world and you want to be a of part of that but you’re being told to focus on spiritual values. In reality you need a bit of both, but you have to find your own balance. When you’re a kid it’s a very daunting thing to realise that nobody has the answers.
Your work ‘In the name’ features a carcass strung from the gallery ceiling, referencing your childhood memories of halal meat being prepared in the backyard. What was the reaction like to this work? Have you had any negative responses from the Muslim community, and if so, how has this affected you/your work?
Firstly, I’d like to make clear that it’s actually a silicone carcass, not a real one. It was important to me to create the illusion and going for that level of realism really dictated people’s responses. By and large art audiences are quite accustomed to things like this, carcasses have been used and referenced for a long time in an art context – Bacon, Rembrandt, Soutine etc.. which was definitely a conscious aspect of the work. When I first showed the work at Alaska Projects in Sydney, people responded really well to the immersive quality of the installation, the entire room became part of the work. I really wanted to bring people inside my own memories. To be honest the only negative responses I’ve had came from vegan’s, although I was always quick to point out that there are no animal products in the work and they could technically eat it without compromising their ideology, but they’d have to buy it first. I’ve never had any negative responses from any other Muslims nor would I really expect to. The idea of a sheep carcass is not something particularly unusual for a lot of people, Muslim or otherwise, most meat products look a little like this at some point in the process. It’s the context shift that activates the work.
Given you have worked with a similar subject matter, I’m interested to know what your thoughts are on the huge public backlash and calls to cancel Hermann Nitsch’s performance at Dark MOFO, where a bull is slaughtered humanely beforehand and used in the act?
Yes, I’ve seen a bunch of predictably animated threads on this topic. I live and work in the middle of a large beef property on the outskirts of Perth, I’m surrounded by at least thousand of these beautiful animals every day. While the Nitsch work looks a bit gross and it’s not something that I’d like to experience, I don’t have any problem with the work being staged, or an animal being slaughtered as integral to that staging. I find it hypocritical that people get so affronted by this particular animal being slaughtered, where do they think steak comes from? When people wanted to remove the Dana Schutz painting from the Whitney Biennial there was a huge outcry over perceived censorship, now it’s an animal at stake and people are calling for censorship. Why does an animal garner more sympathy than an entire community of human beings with a long history of violent oppression? I’ve read a whole bunch of really uninformed, quite venomous commentary aimed at David Walsh and the idea of art itself as a result of this performance, most of it is hard to take seriously.
“Some projects remind you how big the world outside of art really is and it’s so important to reflect the reality of that world in the work we do.”
From Left: In the name | tinted silicone, steel gambrel Abdul-Rahman Abdullah | 2015, Practical Magic | stained wood, nylon rope | Abdul-Rahman Abdullah | 2016. Images are courtesy of the artist and This Is No Fantasy + dianne tanzer gallery
ou were recently in an exhibition curated by Ben Quilty called ‘Another Day in Paradise’ at Campbelltown Arts Centre. Could you please tell me about the work you created for that? You must’ve learnt a lot about Myuran Sukumaran. What was that experience like?
The work that I created in response to Myuran’s story was called The Days. I carved a spotted dove and surrounded it with 3665 wooden eggs, one for each day that he spent incarcerated before he was taken away. I wanted to draw attention to that period of just over ten years in which he achieved so much under the most oppressive circumstances you could imagine. It was a real privilege meeting the Sukumaran family and being able to share their experiences. Some projects remind you how big the world outside of art really is and it’s so important to reflect the reality of that world in the work we do. My work was installed with Myuran’s final paintings which was very humbling, I have so much respect for him and everyone involved in his defence.
You have achieved so much in your career so far, could you name a highlight for me or a proudest moment?
The achievement that I’m most proud of doesn’t appear on my CV – it was quitting outside employment to become a fulltime artist fourteen months after graduating. That was a really big deal to me and so far I’ve managed to hold onto that. It’s a struggle and it’s a hustle but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Make like you’ve made it a thousand times before.
From Left: Black Dog | bronze | Abdul-Rahman Abdullah | 2017, The boy who couldn’t sleep | painted wood, buffalo horn | Abdul-Rahman Abdullah | 2017. Images are courtesy of the artist and This Is No Fantasy + dianne tanzer gallery
Favourite artist? Abdul Abdullah
Favourite musician? Notorious B.I.G
Favourite band? Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three
If you weren’t an artist, what would you be? Probably a very frustrated and grumpy model maker.
If you could change one thing about the world today, what would it be? Give everyone a little dose of empathy.