Gallery > Essays

Within a weight of wood

Mikala Tai is a writer, curator and academic and is currently the Head of Visual Arts for Creative Australia.

Abdul-Rahman Abdullah and I are trying, again, to get our phones to connect. He is in his studio, on a farm about an hour from Perth, standing on the side of the house that gets reception and I’m at home in Sydney persisting with substandard service from Vodafone. ‘You’d think they don’t want us to talk!’ Abdullah exclaims when we finally connect, ‘they’re on to us,’ he continues, ‘and our plan to take over the art world.’ I laugh because he’s funny but also because it is kind of true.

Abdullah works by stealth. With an open and effervescent personality, he is the perfect antidote to what can be a prickly establishment. When he talks it is almost always punctuated by giggles and he has the ability to disarm the haughtiest of the art world elite in mere seconds. Enveloped in his vivaciousness it is hard to not adopt his optimism and aspire to his inclusive manner. If Abdullah did ever take over the art world it would be with infectious collaboration rather than political wrangling.

I think he sculpts by stealth as well. I have never visited his studio and have only glimpsed it in the background of our FaceTime calls where it always looks impossibly tidy. Sometimes he sends me a photo of a new arrival of wood, ‘Look what arrived!’ and then a few weeks later another photo of a finished sculpture, ‘Piggies!’. His ability to manifest a menagerie of animals out of wood can only be described as magic. In early 2020, as the world plunged into Covid-19 induced disconnected lockdowns, Abdullah began to share via Instagram work-in-progress images entitled ‘How to make a…’ Each series reveals a block of wood that slowly, over four work-in-progress images, transforms to become sculptures of a stingray, spider or pigeon. I devoured each series, scrolling first right and then back left in an attempt to uncover exactly how the animals emerged so animated from the static boxy wood. But, despite the behind-the-scenes nature of these images, the magic remains.

‘Oooohh I don’t know’, Abdullah tuts when I tell him about new timelines for exhibitions compromised by Covid-19, ‘it’ll be tight.’ As we attempt to nut out the logistics of the creation of a new work Abdullah gives in to exasperation joking, ‘Sometimes I wish I was a painter, they just whip them out.’ The laborious full-bodied demands of wood sculpting mean that each work requires extended focus and time. The sculptures become imprints of not only his hand but the entire exertion of his body. Abdullah has no studio assistants – unless you count his two infant daughters Aziza and Althea – so each of his works is the result of his physical toil and creative intuition. The magic that I so seek to understand is held within the strength of his hands and the flex of his muscle memory and will never be captured in a carousal of work-in-progress images. In the long period of endeavour, Abdullah creates a ‘drawing in space’ and, with each slice of the chisel, he impresses on the wood a vision in his mind.

Sometimes when I call Abdullah it is strangely quiet. ‘I like serenity,’ he claims, ‘and I am painting.’ I imagine him in his big studio, revelling in the quiet, rendering the details of a dog’s coat with black paint and a fine paintbrush. ‘It’s tedious!’ he exclaims shattering my illusion, ‘why do they have to have so much hair?!’ As he nears the completion of the project, I am struck by the process of creation which starts at scale with a chainsaw and large, sweeping actions and ends with him in stillness perched on the edge of a rolling stool with an almost comically small paintbrush. Through each step in the process his artistic gesture becomes increasingly smaller and, by the time the work is completed, the evidence of his hand has almost been erased.

‘Can I call you back in an hour? I’m just waiting for the guy who is going to slaughter a cow.’ As I hurriedly agree to delay our chat, I am reminded of how the cyclical rhythm of farm life informs Abdullah's work. Together with his wife, artist and curator Anna Louise Richardson, their children are the seventh generation in her family to live on the cattle farm. The day-to-day reality of living on the farm ensures that he is unable to retreat to a life of artistic imaginings but, instead, is forced to consider how they intersect. His sculptural interrogations of animals are implicitly linked to this experience, his ability to animate each creature even in stillness is informed by hours of watching animals move, respond and engage within and upon the landscape. An earlier work The Hunt (2014) is carved from jelutong and depicts a dead kangaroo. Its awkward repose is instantly recognisable as roadkill that whizzes by on long country stretches but, presented in the formal confines of the gallery, Abdullah demands us to stop, look closer and for longer. Western culture has not conditioned us to sit with the reality of death and, shielded by customs, traditions and erasures, it can often become a somewhat esoteric concept rather than a rhythmic reality. But this rhythm is embedded throughout Abdullah’s practice.

In January of 2020, only three weeks after his youngest Althea was born, a fire ripped through the property. The flames grew quickly whipping through the paddocks and trees, causing Abdullah and Richardson to send their girls to safety while they stayed to fight the fire. I have visions of them both, perched on the back of a ute desperately pumping water into a fire unit under a pall of dark smoke. The fire came dangerously close but spared their house and studio and, when they returned, Abdullah sends me videos of a scorched and steaming earth. We speak a few weeks later where both he and Richardson recount the experience in almost breathless awe, ‘frightening’ they both term it but also clearly inspiring, they both speak of an urgent need to create bodies of work in response.

Amidst the aftermath of the fire Abdullah is worried he will miss a grant deadline for our project. Having lost weeks of focus to ensuring the property and his family were recovering the impending due date is now upon him. We agree to workshop the text together and race towards submission. A day later he sends me a draft that is not only informative but poetic in its storytelling. Abdullah recounts the mythology of the winged horse-like creature Buraq, ‘an enigmatic figure of Islamic lore.’ He writes with the same dynamism in which he sculpts and, as he intertwines his own family’s migrant story with that of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the Buraq, I am struck by the how, as he writes himself, ‘a seemingly impossible journey’ can be tempered by ‘a divine precedence’. When I think of Abdullah and Richardson on a ute defending their home from the fire, I imagine it is the Buraq who accompanied them to safety.

A few months later we are discussing his work in an interview, ‘I want my materials to lie,’ Abdullah asserts with a gravelly elongated emphasis on lie. And it’s true, there is trickery in his work. The final sculptures are, as Art Gallery of Western Australia curator Robert Cook deems, ‘magic realism’, they bear no resemblance to their timber materiality and instead appear as taut muscular dogs or weightless spindly spiders. But Abdullah adopts this lie in pursuit of truth. His uncannily still sculpted works enable the viewer to become intimately close with animals, to examine them and to marvel at their corporeal forms. While humanity has restrained and restricted the interaction between humans and the natural world Abdullah encourages us to, just for a second, abandon these boundaries and step closer. In the few moments the viewer draws near there is a collapse of predatory systems and an abandonment of fear that enables sparks of understanding. The lie of Abdullah’s ‘magic realism’ forces humanity to marvel at the natural world and ponder its innate mysticism.

‘Hold on a second,’ I wait as I hear Abdullah clicking off a vacuum and the humming slow to a bearable level, ‘just finished the last crate,’ he continues ‘Don’t worry, I’m starting your work next.’ In a year of extraordinary circumstances Abdullah has ended 2020 on a high. With crates destined for shows opening almost simultaneously in Melbourne and Sydney and his solo at John Curtin Gallery imminent, he has had one of his busiest periods. Our talk is punctuated by blasts of the vacuum as he paces the studio while talking and I imagine him, with the crates up against the roller door, meticulously ridding the floor of sawdust. As he returns the studio to its scrupulous state, I imagine him trudging the 50-metres back to the house and the studio settling into its sleepy state. The next day, as he promised me on the phone, Abdullah will return, retracing his 50-metre commute, hoisting the roller door up and starting the process again where, with secret and imperceptible stealth, he will coax a new animal from within a weight of wood.

Within a weight of wood - Mikala Tai