An artist with an opinion: Abdul Abdullah is in his element
Three new paintings from Perth-born, Sydney-based artist Abdul Abdullah reference ocean, land and fire in a collective denunciation of ruling class hypocrisy.
THERE’S AN ELEMENT FEEL to a trio of new paintings from Perth-born artist Abdul Abdullah that features in AGWA’s The View From Here exhibition.
Taking them left to right, the first work, We Didn’t Start the Fire, comprises a tumultuous ocean scene over which Abdullah has painted a white line drawing of two boy-men roughhousing. The ocean motif is a well to which Abdullah regularly returns. It first caught his attention as part of a jingoistic ad campaign produced by the second Rudd government, in which posters showing an oceangoing boat were overwritten with the slogan, “If you come here by boat without a visa, you won’t be settled in Australia”. The dissonance between this campaign, and campaigns of other governments, struck Abdullah. “You see similar imagery in other posters in other places, but it’s tourism, it’s ‘come to our beaches’,” he says.
In Abdullah’s subversion, ocean becomes metaphor: “It’s the idea of standing on a shore, looking across a treacherous wave break, knowing that it’s an almost impossible task to cross this obstacle, but if you don’t, you’re doomed.” Initially, Abdullah painted his ocean scenes with the destination in frame, but more recently, he’s taken away the horizon. The work takes a playful turn when we focus on the drawn image, which Abdullah describes as “a fight without violence”. In it, a young man wearing Nike pulls on the ear of a young man wearing Adidas, who returns fire with a noogie. It’s an ouroboros: two near-meaningless tribal allegiances scrapping over an unknown beef with incredibly low stakes—or maybe a distraction. The work talks both to the cyclical nature of certain troubles (“the political class protecting economic interests,” says Abdullah), as well as to the proximity between innocence and ignorance whereby adages such as “good fences make good neighbours” can be employed as easily by impotent fridge magnets as by nationalists.
The second work, And The Portuguese And The Dutch, also plays on the ocean motif, however, it is land at the heart of this one. The title follows on from the text of the painting, which reads “Go Home British Soldier”—and puts imperialism squarely in frame. Draw up an inventory of the territories once held by those three (the British, the Portuguese and the Dutch—with apologies to the Spanish) and you will have something close to the attendee list of a United Nations mixer.
Abdullah borrows from the tradition of the Irish rebel song Go On Home British Soldiers, tweaking the sentiment, he says, “into a more general smack back against the transgressions of peace-keeping and colonial occupations”. It is an occupation Australia knows well. At its height, in the early 20th century, a favourite boast of the British Empire was that the sun never set on its territories. (A similar claim was made by the Spanish of their empire in the 16th century, yet another illustration that one-upmanship precludes originality. In this way, And The Portuguese And The Dutch not only captures the earth element, but also that of hot air.)
Like death in Greek tragedy, the horrors alluded to in Abdullah’s painting are out of frame. But it would take a blind spot the shape and size of Australia’s post-colonial history for the implications of And The Portuguese And The Dutch to be lost on its viewer. ‘Dismantle’ is now the catch-cry, and while there is much work to be done, with the redrawing of maps, changing of flags, and statues now requiring bodyguards, it seems the sun has well and truly set on the imperial adventure.
The final work, Can’t see the forest for the fires, is the most literal of the three. Abdullah recalls “seeing the orange glow on the horizon” on a drive from Canberra to Sydney. He slouched at the sight. “Inspired is a funny word to use, but that was the beginning of what motivated me to make that work,” he says. And a striking work it is: silhouetted bush, aglow with orange flames, makes up the bottom quarter of the frame, with billowing, black cumuli of smoke accounting for the rest. Over this, Abdullah has painted the text of the title. The careful syntax of And The Portuguese And The Dutch falls away, and we are presented with something more urgent. Cast your mind back to before the pandemic to our summer ablaze and you’ll recall the visceral feeling of doom that attended every muted midday, every Martian sunset.
“Ten years ago, I was making work that was very explicit about the Muslim experience in Australia post-9/11,” Abdullah says. “But it was very much about personal identity and my perception of the world through that lens. For me, things haven’t shifted a great deal. The through-line of my work has always been a criticism of that political class, the hypocrisy of it.”
Again, this work’s resonance travels outward from its hypocentre, rumbling once more at the political class’s myopic protection of its own interests. “Even as their house is burning down, they’re telling us it’s not [a consequence of climate change],” says Abdullah.
Stay awhile in the presence of these paintings and their collective message becomes clear. “Ten years ago, I was making work that was very explicit about the Muslim experience in Australia post-9/11,” Abdullah says. “But it was very much about personal identity and my perception of the world through that lens. For me, things haven’t shifted a great deal. The through-line of my work has always been a criticism of that political class, the hypocrisy of it.” It’s a class whose protection of itself takes many forms. “We’re all experiencing it in different ways, through coronavirus, through the environment, it’s still the same people who are railing against it, my friends, my communities.” The fire might’ve been burning for some time, but it’s growing in ferocity, and Abdullah is there, brush in hand, watching, working.
This article was first published in the print publication The View From Here in October 2021 under the title In His Element.