A chat about names, memory and The National 2019 with artist Abdul-Rahman Abdullah.

By Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung.

Artist Abdul-Rahman Abdullah

Abdul-Rahman Abdullah is the kind of person whose mouth falls naturally into an open smile when you speak with him. At times you don’t know if he’s poised to find humour in something you’ve said or if he’s waiting for a chance to contribute. Abdullah gives me the feeling that our conversation is always at a crossroads, a juncture that doesn’t have a wrong turn either way. His persistent grin is compounded with a swift confidence that allows him to steer the conversation in any direction. Against these initial impressions, I find myself hyper-aware of our dynamic: the care I take to maintain eye contact, to pull back at certain points when his smile starts to crease – and, importantly, to resist the urge to anglicise or truncate his name, to enunciate every syllable.

I am aware that for many people of colour it is a protracted journey to find comfort in one’s name. I too insist on being known by my full name. In moments of self-reflection, I often wonder if this insistence is banal or even self-indulgent. Abdullah, however, suggests that it is something far more rudimentary – that being addressed by my given name is a simple matter of courtesy.

“It’s a base-level claim in space,” he says. “It’s really not a difficult thing to do!”

I put it to Abdullah – whose material practice spans the disciplines of sculpture, installation and drawing – that he ought to exercise his technical skills and make an artwork that explores the politics of ethnic names.

He chuckles. “I have!”

For that project, titled The Fun Colouring Book of Abdul-Rahman, he Googled 46 different Abdul-Rahmans from around the world, turned their portraits into black and white stencils and assembled them into a colouring book. A single brown pencil was offered to the audience. I feel my mouth widening. My face contorts from awe to disbelief and lands somewhere between amusement and shock. “Oh my God” is all I can muster.

“I made the colouring book in 2011 when I was in my second year of art school,” he tells me. “It’s funny – the work actually ended up at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, but they put it in a little vitrine so you couldn’t colour in any Abdul-Rahman! They stayed white!”

The colouring book is divorced from the intricately carved animals and lustrous installations typical of the work Abdullah now makes. But for what the work lacks in an eye-catching facade, it compensates in spades with a playful energy: razor-sharp humour that is balanced with self-reflexive nuance.

When Abdullah explains his views on race and religion, what strikes me most is how easily he can switch between two extremes. A beat hardly passes between his giggling at the satire of his own work and a stern remark on how precarious it is for artists of colour to expound these issues. Perhaps it is this code-switching that jolts me the most: Abdullah can so fully command the language of humour and seriousness in describing artworks patently critical of racism in Australia.

I wonder if the colouring book’s inclusion in a state gallery could have consequences on his career should the wrong person see it and take issue. I’m weighing the scales for him. However, Abdullah doesn’t let the possibility of being seen as political stop him.

“Politics are inseparable from any artist,” he says. “I’m happy to be defined by my name and my culture because people will always have certain expectations of that. All I have to do is associate my work with my name and it’s political, right?”

It’s easy to see the colouring book and, without viewing the rest of his works, brand Abdullah in this way. He recognises that the threshold for him to be considered political is significantly lower than for his peers. But to consign him to this category would be dangerously flawed. Abdullah explores grander and more universal themes too – his art speaks of death and transience, of transforming personal experiences into two- and three-dimensional moments that are both beautiful and contemplative.

Curated into the Museum of Contemporary Art’s section of The National 2019, Abdullah has fashioned a circular grid of suspended crystals over carved wooden stingrays swimming in a loose lunar formation. Lit in soft purple that creates an impression of twilight, Pretty Beach is a homage to Abdullah’s memory of the sleepy coastal town that inspired the title, which is also where his grandfather passed away. Abdullah recalls the jetty he used to stand on as a child, watching stingrays dance and beat the water before the rain came to beat the surface harder, until nothing could be seen beneath the ripples. Pretty Beach reimagines that moment: crystal rain falling but never quite hitting the shallows, stingrays caught in a perpetual dance that one can watch without fear of interruption. When I tell Abdullah there’s a palpable sense of melancholy to this installation, he pauses.

“It’s less about melancholy but more about death as a passing,” he says. “Below and above the water. I want to fix my grandfather to a place he loved. I want audiences to feel transported by this.”

Abdullah is unashamed to make art that strongly draws on his personal experiences. As an artist of colour, he believes this kind of work interrupts the prevailing narratives of today’s art world – of certain stories that have already been given generous allotments of Australia’s cultural space.

There’s a framed photograph behind Abdullah that my eyes have intermittently drifted towards during our chat. It’s a work made by his younger brother, the artist Abdul Abdullah. The word “HOME” is printed on a billowing white flag, blown by an industrial fan connected to a portable battery pack. These objects are placed front and centre in an otherwise ordinary picture of a typical Aussie football field. I deduce that it seeks to comment on belonging, on what surrendering to Australianness entails. When I ask Abdullah about it, he makes a comment that he loves the photo, but quickly pivots away.

I wonder how many stories wait in our cultural grandstand for an opportunity to run out onto the field; to announce, with a billowing white flag or a cascading sequence of crystals, that they are home and deserve to be heard. Indeed, the blueprint for this kind of storytelling starts with people such as Abdullah who remind us that home is the ability to command space and attention. I let my eyes wander towards the image again. Perhaps, I think, that’s the reason he loves the photo after all.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 20, 2019 as "Proper names".

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Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung is an art critic based in Sydney.