Gallery > Essays

Everything is True

Nur Shkembi is an award-winning Melbourne (Naarm) based curator, writer and art historian specialising in Islamic art history (global and contemporary art), Australian art history, and postcolonial theory.

“You are the Truth from foot to brow.
Now, what else would you like to know?”
~ Jalal-al-Din Rumi

Standing in a near vacant gallery of a newly built museum in Melbourne, fixing the polished bronze figures of Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s sculpture Big Jihad (2011) into the custom-built plinth personally felt like one of those salient moments where a crashing crescendo of cymbals should have accompanied the installation. Finding the right words to describe art that gifts a voice to personal and cultural experiences which are normally dismissed as ‘marginal’, feels like both a tremendous burden and joy. Abdullah is a Perth based artist who creates art within a space that is both familiar and unfamiliar, entering an often unforgiving and fraught critical cultural discourse to present work that moves beyond the default ‘White Australian’ narrative. Almost a decade later, Abdullah is not only part of the growing critical mass that is redefining what contemporary Australian art looks like, but he is also deeply immersed as an individual artist and important voice within the cultural landscape. Beyond the national scope of Abdullah’s practice which navigates multiple categories, his work is also demonstrably critical to the current global conversations and research about contemporary Islamic art, and in particular the emergence of Islamic art in Australia and Southeast Asia.

For Abdullah, growing up in Perth as a Muslim Australian with a mixed Malay-Anglo heritage, the self-perceived ordinariness of this upbringing was jolted into a different kind of reality and thrust into the public domain in the aftermath of 9-11. Intimate familial customs and gestures that were once deemed mostly unremarkable, were now folded into a politically manufactured version of Islam that became central to the public debates regarding the supposed incompatibility of Muslims with ‘Australian values’. In thinking about Abdullah’s career to date, I began with his work Big Jihad because it came about at critical time and during the politicking of the Muslim identity, and it is an important work which encapsulates the Australian Muslim experience in a way that can be seen as historically relevant in the future.

Big Jihad is one of Abdullah’s earliest sculptures, it explores the alternative meanings of the word jihad by reclaiming the personal and spiritual meanings to challenge the popular Western imagery of the Muslim ‘savage’ or ‘terrorist’. In this work Abdullah created two identical figures modelled on his younger brother Abdul Abdullah and placed them in a mirror like stance ‘squaring up’ against themselves. This small-scale sculpture attempts to defuse a highly provocative term, and as noted in the original artist statement accompanying the sculpture, where the work is on permanent display at the Islamic Museum of Australia, Big Jihad explores the meaning of the greater jihad, which for many Muslims is the internal or personal struggle with one’s own nafs (desires). Abdullah describes this concept of dealing with one’s own faults through the recognition of one’s own humanity as forming the basis of his relationship to Islam.”

This sculpture ruptures the collapse between the spiritual and political, an important distinction for the many Muslims caught in the crossfire after 9-11. However, it also provides an alternate understanding for those outside this experience, and it is perhaps in the familiarity and ordinariness of the figure of a young man wearing a shirt and dropped crotch jeans that makes this usually sensitive subject matter so very accessible.

Abdullah speaks of his experience and of the general socio-political climate that often pushes his identity to the margins, “Australians have this self-image of being relaxed and easy going but we are consumed by institutional racism, government corruption and hard-edged politics. In this country Muslims are regarded as foreign, despite my father’s family being here for over 200 years. My name and identity are always assumed as peripheral.”

Despite this, Abdullah amplifies the experiential and poetic nature of his art through the often raw and deeply personal narratives of his own familial and cultural heritage.

Abdullah is a master of his craft, there is a type of joy present in experiencing his work, in seeing the meticulously carved objects defying their own materiality, and where the extraordinary is often posing as something ordinary. In terms of the perpetual undercurrent of politics that sticks to his work, there is a propensity for Abdullah to mostly draw upon his experiences as a Muslim Australian in the pre-9/11 era, which is explained in this quote by Abdullah in relation to his younger brother Abdul Abdullah, also an accomplished artist, “A lot of his work is to do with similar topics, but in a different timeframe. We both talk about a Muslim experience, but his approach is very politicised and very post-9/11. To put it simply, mine is pre-9/11."

The American curator Thelma Golden shares a critical approach to contemporary art that implores us to consider art as extending beyond the potential latency of curated exhibitions. She suggests that rather than viewing artist merely as content providers, we need to understand the inherent value of artists as catalysts of culture. When considering markers of contemporary art as a catalyst for culture, we can perhaps better understand the importance of the type of necessary pulse Abdullah brings to our own cultural landscape. In Abdullah’s artistic practice, one can observe a type of visual language which draws on the knowledge systems that sit outside the Eurocentric classification of anthropocentric perspectives. However, in a radically complex cultural, social and political landscape such as Australia, where the brutal colonial history and occupation of Indigenous land is further complicated by the presence of the coloniser-migrant, these types of important discussions and the revelation of multiple histories often first find their way through contemporary art. Even in the seemingly ‘unfamiliar’ memories that Abdullah shares, there is an undercurrent of familiarity in the truth of a fractured nation in denial of its own history. Art historian and critic Geeta Kapur so eloquently and importantly stated: “it is a commitment to see the history of art in conjunction with the history of humanity — a proposition that is humble, self-evident and audacious.” Kapur is speaking of art and humanity as being inextricably linked, in other words, artists are central to our cultural ecology, or as Golden suggests, they should also be seen and valued as catalysts of it.

Abdullah’s silicone sculpture In The Name, a life-like ‘freshly slaughtered’ carcass is suspended from the ceiling by a butcher’s gambrel, was first shown at Alaska Projects in 2015. The sculpture hung in a clinically stark white space which was purposely designed to evoke the “bright recesses of Abdullah’s childhood memory”, and the type of starkness, or visual silence that one might imagine accompanies death. Abdullah’s family has unique and curious beginnings, with his father’s journey through Asia in the early 1970’s landing him in Malaysia, and into the Islamic faith. His parents carried their faith and sense of uncomplicated and autonomous living across many aspects of their lives, Abdullah shares this in the narrative behind the work, “The pragmatic nature of life and death in the service of dinner became an unspoken ritual of the home, a bloody expression of the sacrosanct enacted behind closed doors.” He then goes on to describe his vivid memories of wiping snot from the yearling’s nostrils, the smell of wet wool followed by a spasm of black shit and blood spraying against the asbestos fence.

The imagery of Abdullah’s hanging carcass evokes my personal memories of growing up in Christchurch in the 1970’s, with few other Muslim families around at that time, no halal butchers and my own parents’ foray into backyard slaughtering. I have lucid recollections of sitting at the kitchen table watching freshly home slaughtered meat being cranked through mincing equipment. As a child I of course did not recognise the unusual social circumstances that fed this practice at that time, nor did I understand my mother’s determination to ensure we had a pork-free diet. However, In the Name is not merely a glimpse into domestic Islamic rituals happening in ‘Aussie’ backyards, it is pointing to something much more substantial, Abdullah is providing us with the necessary visual language that describes a unique circumstance here of being both Western and Muslim.

Abdullah’s accompanying narrative foregrounds another critical point, one which he describes as the “sense of duality” which is embedded within the Muslim Australian experience, and also of the “innate understanding that axioms of the home tend to falter at the front door.” This notion of the ‘front door’ offers an important understanding of the cultural thresh-hold, one that no doubt is familiar to many migrant and non-White families. The ‘front door’ in a way embodies the duality of migrant consciousness, or of what de-colonial theorist Walter Mignolo refers to in terms of art making, as the aesthesis of migrant and diasporic artists who create work with the awareness of a ‘socio-genetic’ condition. According to Mignolo, this condition characterises the sensibility of ‘migrant’ or ‘diaspora’ artists as being grounded in non-western memories which are only rendered familiar by the appropriation of western visual codes. Abdullah curiously finds himself both inside and outside these categories of aesthetics, and between the visual codes of the East and West.

In a time where so called alternate realities or experiences are expected to fold into or assimilate to a seemingly endless mono-cultural landscape, Abdullah’s ability to breach the perceived boundaries is also met by the generosity of contemporary art audiences and their ability and willingness to suspend ‘reality’. Although art is said to have the ability to hold truth, or in the way in which Picasso famously stated, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise truth”, Abdullah refrains from asking the audience to belie their own truth. Rather, he is offering an entry point to explore alternative truth by making visible the cultural threshold that one can readily move across.
However simple or joyful this notion of truth in art might seem, the Eurocentric perspectives of Western knowledge systems of the contemporary era have claimed otherwise. These systems have claimed “Enlightenment thinking” as reason and evidence-based knowledge, and as a marker that distinguishes itself from the so-called second and third worlds; and any such truth which defies the Western notions of ‘reason’ are devalued. Mignolo has stated in relation to the ‘centralisation’ and subsequent delineation of knowledge, “the First World had indeed the privilege of inventing the classification and being part of it.” It is well known that at the heart of this delineation, which was designed to be both geographical and corporeal, is the influence of the 17th century philosopher Rene Descarte. Amira El-Zein, author of Islam, Arabs and the Intelligent World of the Jinn, states in relation to Descarte, “since that time westerners in general have the tendency to see things through opposite pairs: logo versus mythos, sensation versus intellect, metaphorical versus literal, inner versus outer, object versus subject, spiritual versus supernatural…”

The collapsing of these opposites is seen most poignantly in Abdullah’s bronze sculpture Everything is True (2012). In this work Abdullah references his childhood imagination and perception as a reminder that deep within us the poetic vestiges of the unseen, of the unreal, and of the necessary act of relying on all our senses is not an all too unfamiliar thing. Abdullah offers the viewer the ability to hold on to such ways of knowing and reignites the notion that humanity can flourish outside of such single-minded classifications of knowledge.

In Australia, this of course then radically shifts the way in which many non-White communities and their knowledge systems are viewed, and subsequently operate in a type of disconnected and muted condition within their own cultural geographies and diasporic landscapes. However, Abdullah’s work seems familiar enough to audiences to hold their imagination and draw in their curiosity. This is something that is achieved through the materiality of his subject matter and how that may be deemed unreal is in fact anchored in the ‘realism’ of his work. Abdullah’s work has been described as magical realism, drawing on mythology and animal archetypes, “The presence of animals is fundamental to my visual language. Animals have the capacity to move between domestication and wildness, serenity and violence, intuition and logic, interior and exterior embodied within a physicality that is both familiar and foreign.”

For Abdullah, both the supernatural and natural worlds play a major role in transmitting the most intense of human experiences. Livestock, wild and domestic animal of various kinds feature throughout Abdullah’s practice in works such as Among Monsters (2017), Snake Dream (2018), Black Dog (2017); and The Obstacle (2014), an exquisitely hand carved buffalo placed atop a hand knotted carpet, a meditation on his childhood visits to his mother’s home village in Kampung Linggi, Central Malaysia. Some of these animals are present in Abdullah’s daily observances on the cattle farm where he lives with his wife Anna, and two daughters, Aziza and Althea; some are of dreams or memories, whilst others represent omens, or fateful tales as demonstrated in his installation The Days (2017). This work was shown as part of the exhibition, Another Day in Paradise which was curated by Michael Dagastino and Ben Quilty at Campbelltown Arts Centre during the Sydney Festival in 2017. Abdullah, along with a group of leading Australian artists created works in response to the paintings produced by Myuran Sukumaran during his incarceration awaiting execution at Bali’s infamous Kerobokan Prison. Abdullah’s installation is solemn, yet powerful, a solitary figure of a Dove, sitting under a single light globe, on top of 3665 wooden eggs, with each egg representing a single day of Sukumaran’s life in incarceration. Abdullah met with Sukamaran’s family and recalls the family’s pain and the sombre reality of living life as marked days, “Every day is a gift. After meeting with Myuran’s family it became very clear to me how important individual days become when facing mortality as a finite experience of years, months, weeks and days. They spoke of good days and bad, the days that changed them, the ones that stayed in their memory and most of all the last day. There was always another day until there wasn’t.”

Humanity and truth delivered through the materialisation of marginal subjectivities continue to feature throughout Abdullah’s practice in both overt and subtle ways. In the work titled The men who sold lies (2018), a ‘cloth’ which appears to drape over a series of three paintings by Joseph Lycett, a twice convicted forger who was commissioned by Captain James Wallis in 1818 to document the newly established penal colony in the area of Mulubinba in Newcastle, is recreated in this piece. The skilfully crafted wood sculpture appears soft and malleable, acting as both a visible and metaphorical covering. In this work Abdullah describes Lycett as opportunist in continuing his practice of deceit in service of Empire through the idyllic landscapes and panoramic views that hid the truth of the occupation, and as Abdullah states, “served to blanket the proceeds of invasion, displacement and occupation beneath idyllic lies.”

The enduring nature of Abdullah’s practice can be seen in his remarkable skill of creating ordinary objects to share extraordinary narratives, and somewhat extraordinary objects sharing the everyday business of being human. Abdullah’s installation, Pretty Beach, first shown for The National in 2019 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is a recollection of the artist’s childhood memory of viewing the spectacle of a fever of stingrays gliding elegantly under the jetty at his grandfather’s home on the Brisbane Waters, Central Coast NSW. The eleven beautifully hand sculpted stingrays appear to glide dreamlike under a downpour of shimmering crystals. The beauty of this scene collapses into the jarring reality of a deeply personal tragedy, the suicide of Abdullah’s paternal grandfather. Through sharing the familiar narrative of family and personal memory, Abdullah breaches perceived cultural divides by creating a subtle disruption through the shared human experience and understanding of death and grief. With work imbued with such personal anecdotes, Abdullah offers audience various points of connection through both the familiar and familial, and perhaps as a way forward through such connections to a possible cosmopolitan future.

Abdullah’s work has the ability to not only delight audiences, but to be a catalyst and rupture the confines of culture, time and place. With Abdullah’s practice primarily mediated through his personal memory and mythology, the socio-political climate in which his work is received, reveals and documents important truths about the tension between marginalised histories and politics in the current moment. However, it is in Abdullah’s ability create art that folds subjectivity into truth, and personal memory into the broad cultural landscape that affirms the place of his work in the discourse of contemporary art in Australia.

Everything is true - Nur Shkembi