Visual Art

Multidisciplinary artist Abdul Abdullah has found that the pandemic has made him refocus his practice on painting, even as it has taught him to aim for balance. By Maddee Clark.

Abdul Abdullah

A corner of Abdul Abdullah’s workspace, part of his studio in North Sydney.
Credit: Abdul Abdullah

Abdul Abdullah is a multidisciplinary artist based in Sydney. As a seventh-generation Australian Muslim, born in Perth, his work has been informed by his intellectual and personal engagements with Australian political discourse, and its politicisation and ostracisation of Muslim identity.

He is a deeply critical thinker with an interest in outsider figures, and has spoken about his art as playing “with potentially contradictory signifiers to critique and challenge entrenched societal norms which I am often at odds with”. This has generated controversy – two tapestries exhibited in the 2019 Violent Salt exhibition in Mackay were withdrawn after the local RSL and conservative politicians asserted they were “disrespectful” to the armed forces, a charge Abdullah strongly denies.

When I speak with him, he is refocusing his mind on painting with a renewed interest in interrogating power and history.

Abdul, how are you? Where are you at the moment?

I am generally pretty good – all things considered. I started off 2020 at the Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh, and then went to New York for the Armory Show. I was in Los Angeles, about to go to a show in Berlin, when Covid-19 hit, and I had to rush back to Sydney. Right now, I’m in my studio in North Sydney looking out the window on an overcast day.

I’m working on a few projects; there are a few art fairs with Yavuz Gallery in Hong Kong and Taipei that are optimistically still happening, and I have a show with my brother at Moore Contemporary in Perth in August and a show at Richard Koh Gallery in Kuala Lumpur in September.

At the moment I am really focused on painting; it’s something that has always been the backbone of my practice and doesn’t require much assistance or travel when compared with photography, sculpture or embroidery. The process for these upcoming projects has been a little different to my approaches in the past.

I’ve never thought about painting in that way before. How has your process shifted recently?

Previously I would always begin with a broad theme and a series of collected images that I would piece together as the beginnings of an idea.

For my 2021 projects I began with writing; I invited my friend and author/rapper/poet Omar Musa into the studio, and we spent a day looking at language, quotes and idioms. The imagined imagery that was initiated by this day of writing have become the building blocks for my new work.

How did you and Omar go about this? Were there particular writing exercises you did together?

Omar had told me about writing rooms that get organised when working on scripts for television and movies. I loved the idea of a group of people of different perspectives coming together to refine an idea and thought this would be perfect for my creative process. We pasted a huge sheet of paper up on the studio wall and then just started to brainstorm and write down phrases.

We started with a few key words and let it web out from there. I have always relied on different people (especially my brother Abdul-Rahman Abdullah) as conceptual sounding-boards, but this was the first time I had set aside a time, a place and a professional to bounce ideas off.

I love this idea of the meeting between language and painting. What does it mean to start with a concept rather than the image?

I don’t mean to say the images would come before the concept usually, but rather they would form together, and the different elements would react to each other as the images took shape.

With the new process it was an opportunity to really play with language. The themes and concepts are all still there right at the beginning, but this time I’m not looking at imagery at all. This way I’m not too bogged down with a preconceived idea of what I want the outcome to look like; this way feels a lot freer flowing.

Yes, that makes sense. I can imagine it involves a bit of reading too. What texts are feeding into this new work?

For years I’ve been reading race and political theory from Frantz Fanon to Naomi Klein to Dr Cornel West. With this writing workshop, we drew from everything from classical literature and poetry, to political speeches and song lyrics. I am borrowing from and remixing some of the greatest communicators in history.

Each of the sources we draw from is in the business of persuasion and education, and they come from historically unpopular but ethically virtuous philosophical and practical positions. Each of them is an outcast in one way or another, and I like to think I’m a misfit making work for misfits. I can only learn from them. I also really love science fiction and superhero movies.

I am very excited about playing with language and text to challenge historical structures and systems of power. Central to my interests for the past few years has been interrogating the difference between the external perception of an experience and the reality of that lived experience, and how the projection of criminality and monstrosity on innocent bodies has been used to justify the unjust seizure of land, labour and resources.

I do a lot of reading on the subject, as well as drawing from my own personal experiences, but so often these days I just need to turn on the TV to see these structures made plain.

What does an average working day look like for you?

Mostly I’m a bit of a night owl, but I am trying to get into the studio earlier. These days I try and start my day with a run, and I usually get to the studio about 11.

It’s very easy for me to spend 12 or 14 hours working away on stuff here, but if the last year has taught me anything, it’s that I need some type of balance. For 2021 I am trying to limit it to nine hours a day, and I have just started taking weekends off.

That’s an intimidating work schedule. How do you approach rest and recovery?

I am the type of person who is really bad at taking breaks, or relaxing. It’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s allowed me in the past to do a lot in a small amount of time, but in hindsight I can see how it has hindered other parts of my life.

To settle myself I try and exercise once, or preferably twice, a day. It’s weird to say that exercise is my “rest and recovery”, but I certainly feel more clear-headed afterwards.

I can imagine it’s a good way to shake off some of the heaviness of a nine-hour-plus studio day. Do you find your mind goes quieter when you exercise, or do you find yourself still in the painting when you are in the gym moving your body?

When I exercise, I try not to think about art stuff, but it’s really hard not to. Mostly I try and just clear my head and listen to a podcast.

It’s almost meditative. My mind definitely quietens down. I also find that when I feel fit and healthy, I feel better about myself. In a way it’s self-medication, it keeps me relatively level and I am less likely to slip into a self-loathing spell. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 20, 2021 as "Abdul Abdullah".

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Maddee Clark is a Yugambeh writer and editor.