Gallery > Essays

Nūr - The Light

Somayra Ismailjee
Arts & culture writer

Carving wood is not, characteristically, a gentle discipline. There is no slow, seeping motion of paint falling onto a canvas; no tentative trace of ink or graphite across a page. Instead, there is a direct and deliberate process of shearing away the substance of an object to give rise to another — unearthing the artist’s vision, creating by taking away. Each paring, too, carves away the noise, the burden and the expectation, the artifice, of modern life. This is carving as ritual, as analogy. As the offcuts fall away, with every layer shed, the artist edges ever closer to a purity of self we carry with us in childhood, long before learning the ways of the world. The artist arrives at something true. A boy on a jetty, yet to learn of loss, but learning of disappearance all the same.

Abdul Rahman-Abdullah is an artist. He is a storyteller. He is a communicator. And a communicator, even a writer, knows that there are some stories for which there are no words; at least, no words sufficient for evoking the essence of the story to be told. Here, the story is a meditation; the story is the opening to a world.


It is Pretty Beach, the 1980’s. From the Central Coast of New South Wales, the water is clear, crystalline. It is here that Abdullah’s grandfather Cliffy lives, known amongst the locals as Honest Cliff. A young child, Abdullah stands on the end of a sprawling jetty, watching a group of stingrays glide through the water below. They swim in arcs, tranquil. As the rain begins to pour, the stingrays disappear from view, submerged below the water — its surface obscured, opaque.

The making of a memory is a curious thing.

Much of Abdullah’s work explores memory: autobiographical and familial. From early sculptures like Wednesday’s Child through to Pretty Beach today, glimpsing Abdullah’s work is akin to stepping inside his internal world, past evoked in the present. Art Gallery of Western Australia curator Robert Cook once described his style as magic-realism — more specifically, as “realistic, but loaded with narrative and personal investment.” Could there be a more accurate description of memory itself? A memory is not a literal, internal encapsulation, it is a representation. A memory is filtered through our perception, its making a process. Memories are realistic, but selective in their realism — shaped by emotion, by narrative, by personal investment. Abdullah captures the nuances; more importantly, he translates them, creating a closed circuitry of space and time, shape and form.

“He died holding photos of us as children.”

Grief is long, heavy, inexorable. It rolls over a life like storm clouds approaching a shoreline, certain and unrelenting. Grief speaks in a language that no one else seems to understand until they, too, are engulfed by it.

Pretty Beach, however, is not an elegy.

When Abdullah’s grandfather Cliffy passed away in 2009, Abdullah was no longer a young boy. A death that occurs by choice is, for some, impossible to understand. Other times, it embodies a true notion of death ‘with dignity’, an ease of suffering, a pain lessened ever slightly by the knowledge of another’s pain released.

Soft echoes

We talk of souls, and signposts. A slow afternoon in September, Abdullah shares the impetus of Pretty Beach, and the conversation turns to a tangent: a word can mean whatever we want it to mean. Words like soul, like afterlife, sit like hollow vessels ascribed their meaning only when we choose to imbue them.

The term soul, then, is a placeholder. To someone raised in our shared heritage, this is rūḥ — the part of a person that cannot die, that goes on, unseen.

In Pretty Beach, the rain forms a circle, floor-to-ceiling of hanging chain; the stingrays, eleven in number, lay along the same line, curved like a crescent moon. In Islam, the circle itself has many connotations: unity, monotheism, harmony, infinity.


Since its first presentation in The National at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Pretty Beach has inspired many thoughtful, written responses. A piece for The Conversation last year1 wrote of “revelation, terror and insight” in the confrontations with death inherent in its central subject matter. However, for all that has been written, Pretty Beach is misunderstood, much the way that death itself is misunderstood; or, rather, misshapen in the Western imaginary. Death is not an end, not something to be feared. It is a continuation, a transmutation. It is easy to say that a work about loss wrestles with darkness. It is harder to find the light.

On the edges

For many years, Abdullah worked as a commercial sculptor and a model-maker, honing his skills. Earlier this year, he described carving as “drawing in space.” The foreword of Everything is True describes technical virtuosity. And yet, atop the bedrock of these abilities, the true genius of Abdullah’s work emerges from his capacity to transport the audience into a liminal space through objects so tangible — to create the ethereal.

In %Pretty Beach%h, light flickers from crystal to crystal of hanging raindrops like whispers that echo as they flit around an empty room. There is the sense that the work knows something we do not — that it is self-contained, and irrevocably complete; a space we are stepping into, as guests and observers. We are afforded the opportunity to exist in this memory; to narrow the interstices between a past and present reality. To anyone whose life has been marred by loss, the days begin to bleed into eachother; distinctions between what was and what is feel arbitrary. In the mind, it is all the same. And yet, this work embodies an anti-solipsism; an ode to the recognition that what we cannot see does not cease to exist because of our imperception.

Light above and below

In Blue Flame2, South Asian writer Priyatam Mudivarti wrote of his father’s passing, of putting flame to bone, of death and ritual; in Pyre3, Amitava Kumar wrote of his mother’s death: “There can be so much pathos in accounting. All the dumb confusion and wild fear of our lives rearranged in tidy rows in a ledger. One set of figures to indicate birth, and another set for death: the concerted attempt to repress the accidents and the pain of the period in between. Entire lives and accompanying histories of loss reduced to neat numbers.” The hollow bounds we put around a life in memoriam risk erasure — recording the facts of life and death, discarding the meaning, the magic that existed in between. To this, Pretty Beach is an antithesis. Much like the soul continues on, so too does true memory, with all its emotion and complexity.

Abdullah trades in microcosms — each memory a world. The ability to carve these worlds into manifest being and present them as physical space, as object and vision exported from his mind and into our immediate reality, is indelibly rare. Pretty Beach is immense for its scale and power, for its technical execution, but moreso for its encapsulation of beauty. Pretty Beach is light in darkness, it gives rise to a gentle and unspoken radiance. In Arabic, this is nūr.

Nur (The light) - Somayra Ismailjee