When storm clouds stir on the distant horizon, they bring with them a foreboding sense of urgency. Advanced as our forecasting technologies are today, we still never truly know how the wind, rain and incoming tides will affect us. This sense of anxiety is emblematic of the twenty-first century human experience. Fear of the unknown future looms heavy in our minds, and for those people who are already feeling the global effects of war and environmental disaster, the storm is no longer a distant possibility.
This interplay between hope and dread is powerfully articulated in the life-like sculptures of Perth-based artist Abdul-Rahman Abdullah. His installation, The Dogs (2017), features a room full of ornate chandeliers floating above the gallery floor. Through the soft haze of refracted light a pack of black dogs appear, seemingly frozen in mid-flight with teeth bared and ears at full attention. It is unclear whether the dogs in this scene are in pursuit of a target or are fleeing danger themselves, creating a surreal, dream-like feeling that is at once both wondrous and nightmarish.
As an artist of seventh generation Anglo-Australian heritage on his paternal side, and first generation Malay-Australian heritage on his maternal side, Abdul-Rahman Abdullah has significant insight into the cultural, political and religious anxieties of both Anglo-Australian and migrant-Australian communities. While identifying strongly as a Malay-Australian, he is often ‘othered’ because of his name and Muslim identity. This dynamic sits at the heart of The Dogs installation, being a potent contemplation on the hysteria surrounding Islamophobia in Western nations, and the often inhumane treatment of Muslim and migrant asylum seekers as sub-human. The work prompts us to look deeper into these issues and into our own hearts, to consider more critically our cultural context and those of our international neighbours.
Sydney-based moving image artist Khaled Sabsabi knows too well the tribulations of gaining asylum in Australia. Born in Tripoli in the years preceding the Lebanese Civil War, Sabsabi was just a child when he first witnessed the butchered bodies of soldiers and militia men piled into the back of a truck parked across the street from his grandmother’s apartment. In the months following, as the fighting approached their home, they experienced intense shelling and were eventually forced to flee through the warzone when the basement they were sheltering in came close to collapse. Sabsabi remembers being frozen with fear as snipers shot at him, his brother and their grandmother as they crossed through areas of open terrain. Surviving this horrific ordeal, Sabsabi and his family eventually found a new home in Sydney’s culturally diverse Western suburbs in the late 1970s. Yet this refuge was not completely peaceful either, and through his artwork Sabsabi reflects on the struggles he faced as a Muslim Lebanese man trying to find his place in Australia, and the desire he possessed for reconnection and reconciliation with a homeland he was forced to flee.
In his most recent installation entitled We Kill You (2016) Sabsabi revisits Lebanon to reconnect and investigate the shared, and hotly-contested, histories and geography of the region. Returning home with a sense of heartfelt nostalgia, Sabsabi found a changed landscape and a way of life that was unfamiliar. The expansive three channel moving image installation, produced over a two year period, documents this journey of re-familiarisation and includes footage shot in Morocco and Saudi Arabia. The moving image works are projected onto two-sided projection screens – enabling the viewer to walk around to the rear side of the screen to view a mirror image of the footage. This sleight of hand, in reversing the image, is more than a symbolic gesture. It is a demonstration of how seemingly subtle shifts in perspective can distort reality and move existing customs and practices in new directions. Sabsabi uses this device to delve into a range of themes, from Pan-Arab nationalist sentiment, increasing militarisation and the destabilising effects of colonialism. As he states, “the work is another personal chapter in dealing with and showing the factual contradictions of war and the affects it has had on all people everywhere”.
This interest in contested lands and histories is shared by Sydney-based painter and photographer Abdul Abdullah whose expansive multi-panel landscape painting and embroidery artwork entitled Mission Creep (2017) depicts the Hindukush Mountain range on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The beauty and painterly quality of this landscape belies a menacing history of political, religious and military turmoil which Abdul Abdullah draws out in his artwork. Spray painted and embroidered across the surface of each panel are a series of smiley-face emojis. These human symbols of momentary emotion appear in stark contrast to the cold permanence of the mountain range.
The use of the emoji icon as a projection of human emotion is similarly explored in an accompanying series of portraits featuring returned Australian military personnel. In each of these portraits the subject sits within a symbolic pool of black oil paint, their eyes peering out at the viewer from behind a crudely scrawled aerosol smiley-face. Much like the juxtaposition of the emoji and the mountain range, the contradiction of the brightly coloured smiley-face icon and the shadowy figure lurking behind seems to suggest a façade of joy, shielding the viewer from a deeper, more ominous truth concealed within the stoic sitter.
While apparently defacing these otherwise masterful painterly works, Abdul Abdullah’s graffiti-like markings demarcate a moment of rupture and estrangement, acknowledging the traumatic experiences of war that many military personnel carry within them on their return home. Through this process Abdul Abdullah acknowledges our complicity as Western imperialist nations in global conflicts, while also putting a human face to the unsettling effects of post-traumatic stress experienced by our service people.
While the title of the exhibition beckons us to prepare for dark clouds looming overhead, Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s chandeliers remind us that there is hope for light through the storm. Yet this predisposition for light and pleasantries must be tempered with a cautious mindfulness. By ignoring the pain of others we are free to pursue our own individual fulfilment, and when pursued single-mindedly this course of action can be a pleasant distraction, but it will not prepare us for the events approaching on the horizon. Fear in this sense is a powerful incentive. It calls us to action, to protect for calamity. Fear can also be turned against us, if we let it get the best of us. Dark Horizons looks at this state of anxiety from the perspective of the persecuted and the proletariat, providing context for Western working class anxieties and those of migrants. Together we have the power to advocate for humanity and pressure those in power to prepare for a better world.
Reuben Friend (Director, Pataka Art + Museum)
Reuben Friend (Director, Pataka Art + Museum)