Looking at Abdul Abdullah‘s work alone might not give you every hint necessary to guess immediately where the 29-year-old artist is from. And seeing him in the flesh, t-shirt and jeans, ordering a beer at bar in Greenpoint, gives you even fewer clues to go on. That’s because in the post-9/11 world, Muslims in countries across the world have had to deal with widespread prejudice, demonization, and deeply confused depictions of their religion and culture, experiences that Abdullah confronts head-on in his paintings and photographs. Turns out Abdullah’s from Australia, but his new solo show, Coming to Terms, is a reminder that the problem of Islamophobia is unfortunately still as potent as ever almost everywhere.
Jessica Holburn, creative director at CHASM Gallery, has spent most of 2015 bringing an array of Australian artists to the Bushwick space. Abdullah seems to be by far the most political of them — though you wouldn’t know it immediately upon meeting the guy. He’s far from activist chic, and chill enough to enjoy a Bud Light Rita with you while discussing the finer points of malt liquor.
While some of Abdullah’s paintings depict hip-looking young people who could be from almost anywhere in the world (in his series Monsters his subjects are only betrayed by their Muslim-sounding names, “While we may not bear any external indicators, it is the name that defines us as the ‘other’, and presages many assumptions and misconceptions about what we represent,” the artist wrote), others seem to play on the worst nightmares of Middle American-seal-the-border voters.
Though Abdullah very convincingly says that his art is not meant to be controversial, his depictions of menacing-looking half-men in ape masks holding kalashnikovs and throwing smoke bombs hold the viewer complicit in the stereotype of Muslim-as-terrorist, Islam-as-violence. Isn’t this what we imagine when we read articles about suicide bombings? Is this what we picture when we hear someone say ISIS?
But Abdullah also puts these two extremes in a blender, spitting out a balaclava-wearing groom and bride in The wedding (Conspiracy to commit), one striking photograph included in this show.
If you’ve kept up with Australian politics in the past several years, you’re probably aware that the same right-wing swing that took hold after 9/11 in the U.S. also hit Down Under, but with much more force. “We’ve got our own version of Donald Trump in power,” Abdullah laughed.
The impact of an event that occurred halfway around the world can be measured in the emergence of an Australian political climate characterized by a very potent form of conservatism. You’ve probably heard about the numerous incidents of Australian officials turning boats overflowing with asylum-seekers back out to sea or the offshore detention centers, shrouded in secrecy, where people found without legal immigration status have been sent indefinitely. Or maybe you haven’t.
Of course, stories like this immediately register as freaking awful. And though it’s easy to shake our heads at xenophobic policies that seem otherworldly in their cruelty and prejudice, need we be reminded of the (now dismantled) undercover NYPD unit created to spy on Muslim communities? The continuing existence of Guantanamo Bay? And of course the ridiculous, but telling, conspiracy theory about President Obama being a super-secret Muslim?
Oh, right…When you think about it, these anti-Muslim policies aren’t so foreign at all. And while WTF doesn’t even begin to describe some of the crap Muslims in this country have had to deal with in the wake of 9/11, the event had an impact across the Western world (not to mention what’s happened in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Africa, Southeast Asia… the list goes on).
We caught up with Abdullah to talk about what’s inspired his Muslim-Australian, identity-centric political artwork, and found that his message and experiences are probably all too familiar to Muslims and friends of Muslims living right here in New York City.
I started off as a painter and now I do a bit of everything. This show is just photographs and primarily with my photographs, up until this point, I’ve been the subject and using different signifiers to push across the point. But in this one body of work there are two threads: one thread is me in the ape mask and the second thread is getting actors in, removing myself from the image, and getting people in my place.
I still do both. Painting is still the background of my practice. But there’s something about photography where it comes with this presumption of evidence, so people see it as a snapshot of something that’s real, as opposed to a painting that people will see as entirely fantastical. There is evidence of something and it comes with a burden, even though it can be mucked around with as much as any painting, and I often do that— my photos are entirely set up, it’s a stage— but people see it was something real and tangible.
Yeah, in a sense they do, particularly with the Malaysian photographs. I’ve talked about a very particular experience so far and I’d like to sort of broaden it out a bit. And that was part of the thinking behind this show in Bushwick. Those same signifiers that translate in Australia, about the Australian condition or Australian experience, might translate here. But it’s about mixing it up a little bit more and opening it up to alternative experiences.
I’m mainly looking at, broadly, the disaffected byproducts of the colonies. And that’s sort of my academic title, but it means marginalized people everywhere, pretty much. When I say “byproducts of the colonies” I consider myself a byproduct of the colonies, because I’m not a product of the colonies. I’m not part of the plan. I’m sort of the offshoot, which isn’t necessarily part of what they wanted to achieve.
On my father’s side, I’m a seventh-generation Australian, so the original ancestor got kicked out of England in 1815 for stealing two stamps and a watch chain. My brother has just come back from Indonesia and Malaysia, and he’s been tracing our ancestry there and he’s traced it back 18 generations. So it’s a peculiar story.
I’ll tell you briefly, but we’re ancestors of the oldest brother of five brothers who [about 300 years ago] was exiled from Malaysia to Australia when that brother had an affair with a local prince’s concubine and then killed the prince. But because he was from a warrior clan, he wasn’t killed himself. He was just exiled and he took his army with him and went to Malaysia.
It’s always sort of been there. Australia has really, really big issues in facing its colonial history, its racist history. It’s all documented, but people are in denial of it, like the White Australia policy, the treatment of Aboriginal people up until now. They didn’t get counted as people in the census until 1972, before that they were “flora and fauna.”
Even recently, a whole bunch of communities out in the bush are being sort of closed down. The government’s stopped supplying water and electricity because it’s too expensive. So these people that have been living there for 30,000 years are begin forced to go elsewhere. I’m sort of going off-topic but, yeah, Australia’s pretty racist.
I started feeling it in the mid-‘90s. We had Pauline Hanson, who started the One Nation Party, which got a lot of traction. And then after 9/11 things were happening globally for people with names like mine and who look like me, so that was a shift. And then more recently, there are groups like Reclaim Australia. They called themselves nationalists, but they’re really xenophobic. They’re specifically anti-Muslim, but they’re pretty racist all around. They’re attached to the Australian Defense League. They don’t like to admit it, but there’s lots of cross-over.
They held protests in all the capital cities and guys were protesting with swastikas on their necks and stuff like that, and then the last protest got really violent with anti-racist and anarchist groups clashing with them. Things like the 2005 Cronulla race riots, they’re all simmering just under the surface and they’re really starting to push through.
Yeah, that’s something I’ve always been interested in, but it took me a while to build any confidence up. Like, I didn’t want to be preachy. I’m still pretty naive, I’m pretty ignorant of a lot of things. But it took me a fair bit of reading and a fair bit of understanding through personal life experiences before I felt that confidence to be able to say what I wanted to say without being too ham-fisted and clumsy about the whole thing.
I figured if I can make the first expression I make a decent one, then the next one is more likely to be taken seriously. I thought if I was too loose and fancy free early on, I might be dismissed.
You used a really interesting phrase in a documentary that someone made about you, The Bad Guy—“politicization of identity.” Can you talk a little bit about that?
A good sort of anecdote is the difference in experience between my brother and I. He’s an artist as well, he’s a sculptor. But he came into art later than I did. He studied it in the ‘90s and then sort of dropped it and never looked at it again until 2011, when he started studying again in his 30s. And he’s kickin’ ass now.
But we talk about very similar things, we have the same cultural signifiers, we have the same sort of cultural experience. But his formative years were in the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s, whereas my formative years were post-9/11. So he looks back on a religious experience with nostalgia. It was a bit more of an eccentricity for him, what he was and his identity.
It’s not a poor-bugger-me-story, but I grew up turning on the television, reading the papers, turning on the radio, whatever you did, and there’s people like me, with names like mine, we’re the bad guy. So I grew up with that mentality, and a generation of kids, all of a particular socioeconomic background, but just sort of on the fringes, all felt this. It was a common sense of marginalization and disenchantment with everything else, not really feeling a part of it.
It was a peculiar set of circumstances, these kids who were all around the same age, who were all going through the same shit that kids go through at that age, but without necessarily being able to turn to their parents, who were potentially religiously stubborn and didn’t want to hear any of these things. And they don’t necessarily have anyone to turn to.
I found that a lot of the people I grew up with, they either went one way or the other. They either went really, really religious or they went to jail. So that experience felt politicized and beyond our control, if that makes sense. People projected what they thought we represented onto us.
I’m doing, not a fun thing, but when I get back to Sydney and I’m working in a de-radicalization program in a juvenile detention center. It’s something that I’m really looking forward to because I’m hoping the experiences I had can relate to these kids who have had the same issues, but potentially responded to it in dysfunctional ways.
Yeah, I had the benefit of some good role models and also throughout that period I boxed as an amateur. And that sort of sporting environment helped, so I had that outlet. I never felt any need to prove myself on the street, or to be outwardly aggressive in certain situations. But at the same time, I shared that feeling with all the other people I knew, we had this impression that we were the bad guys in society.
Things like direct racism don’t really happen to me unless I’m online, and it’s easy to just walk away from a computer. But my mother caught it a lot more than I did. She doesn’t wear a scarf anymore, but she used to and people would yell at her, throw things at her. She’s had her scarf ripped off. She’s been chased. Feeling these experiences through her and just seeing her shaken up by these things– and I’m really, really close to my mom– feeling that through her was one of the main things that focused me in a way, her negative experiences.
My dad, he’s still got a big white beard and dresses like an Arab dude would of the same age. But he doesn’t have those same experiences, it’s my mother who really feels it at the moment.
I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more inclined to be more religious, but I’m curious about it. I’ve researched a lot of it, and also wearing a toppy, a skull cap as a signifier. But now through my art is the way I wear my heart on my sleeve, I guess.
I don’t think for all artists. But there’s an Aboriginal artist in Australia who’s sort of my mentor, well, he’s a friend of mine. But he’s more of an activist posing as an artist. I don’t think that I’m that, but I do think there is a social obligation to try and make things better, if you can see a fault.
I studied journalism before I studied art, but I’m not a very good journalist. So art seemed to suit me better.
Yeah, I think so. There’s a great interview with Mohammad Ali and William F. Buckley and they talked about the Nation of Islam and how they had different views. Basically, everyone has a different role. So I’m trying to effect positive change the best way I know how and it’s not necessarily being on the front lines at protests, but it’s by producing work. And I think art has the capacity to infiltrate where other voices don’t.
I started making music when I was really young, and it was really, really horrible, terrible music, but no one really listened and no one really cared. But I’ve found that if I can make a good piece of work, people will sit there with it and give it a bit more time and hopefully allow themselves a little bit more room to change their minds.
I think there are a lot of experiences, especially between Australia the US and the UK and a lot of Western Europe, where the Muslim experience is a migrant experience. What I’ve found is that most of my experience of being a Muslim in Australia was being colored and being broke and your parents being weird. Those things tied us all together, everything else is pretty diverse. But I think that ties a global community together in these countries that are the economic powerhouses, these places that attract people to migrate to.
There are lots of commonalities. Even coming into JFK, everyone else went through security, but I had a two-hour wait in the waiting room while they made sure I wasn’t a terrorist. And I expected it, so I wasn’t really bothered by it. But it was a bit of a deflating start to the trip.
I’m still trying to work it out. It’s a strange sort of space. But it’s also a job, I make a living off it. So that’s problematic in its own way, when you talk about integrity. So I try to have one commercial show a year, and the rest are in institutions or not-for-profit spaces. But yeah, I’m still trying to work that out.
Surprisingly. Really weirdly. I don’t think it is, necessarily, but it certainly upsets people. My brother and I had an exhibition in a state-run gallery in Western Australia and on the first day, there were all these letters-to-the-editor in the paper and more complaints than they’ve ever had about a show.
And weirdly, it was before people had even seen all the work, and there were two paintings that were the cheesiest, well not cheesy, but the lightest work in the whole show. They were paintings of people wearing balaclavas, so there’s a photo in the paper of me and my brother in front of these paintings of people wearing balaclavas and there were all these responses that the gallery was “supporting terrorism.” And since it’s public money, they were saying public funds are being used to support this terrorist project. It was outrageous, but I’ve gotten used to that by now.
In 2011, when it first started happening and I first started getting some hate mail, I was really taken aback by it, but now it’s sort of part and parcel.
It’s strange, because a lot of people say, ‘Surely, it’s just a couple of people.’ But it’s surprising how many people think that way. I don’t know how it is over here, but in Australia often you’ll scratch the surface a bit and you’ll find a racist. There’s denial of it. There’s a throwaway line in Australia, ‘I’m not racist, but…’ and they’ll go on to say something super racist.
Coming to Terms is on view at CHASM Gallery, located at 56 Bogart Street in Bushwick, until September 28th by appointment only, contact Jessica Holburn: firstname.lastname@example.org