Abdul Abdullah Photographs the Isolation of Australian Islam [Exclusive Interview]
"What I don’t want to do is elicit sympathy. Fuck sympathy."
The Wedding (Conspiracy to Commit), Abdul Abdullah, 2015
On his dad's side, Abdul Abdullah's family goes back six generations of pure, "true blue" Australian. His mum, however, is a Malaysian Muslim. In a recent talk at TEDx Australia, the photographer and painter explained the reality that comes with his heritage in the not-so-great-for-Muslims political environment in his home country. "I've never really been allowed to feel like an Aussie," he says. "I'm no flag-waving cricket fan. No tinney-smashing, thong and singlet-wearing larrikin. There's nothing 'home and away' about me. Current affairs doesn't talk about my current affairs."
This is something of an understatement. This summer, the xenophobic, right-wing "Reclaim Australia" movement held rallies in all of Australia's major cities, its 30,000+ member Facebook group cultivating an onslaught of anti-refugee op-eds and political cartoons. But while anti-Islam sentiments seem to be coming to a head in recent headlines, they're something Abdullah has dealt with his entire life. "I was 14 when the planes hit the towers and Muslims almost overnight became perceived as an existential threat," he tells The Creators Project. "I grew up being told that I was one of the bad guys, and that I wasn’t really welcome in the country I was born in."
With no other recourse, Abdullah expresses his frustration, pain, and incredulity through art. He captures his impression of hate-filled nationalists and essentialised versions of their victims through elaborate portraits, frequently dressing and photographing himself to capture the right attitude. His props range from the Australian flag, to traditional Malaysian wedding garb, to a monkey mask that was used as a makeup tester in Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes. Oh, and sometimes he uses an actual monkey named Aki.
Arranging these elaborate scenes, Abdullah creates highly subjective explorations of his own opinions, in the hopes of eliciting an equal or opposite reaction. "I'm revealing my biases with the hope of engaging and examining yours," he explains. Last week, Abdullah opened a new show at Brooklyn's CHASM Gallery, so we spoke to him about how how he became an activist artist, he met his monkey, and what it was like growing up as an Australian Muslim.
The Creators Project: You've transitioned back and forth between painting and photography throughout your career. What about the concept for your CHASM Gallery show lends itself to photography?
Abdul Abdullah: I’ve found painting and photography both have historical connotations and understandings that lend themselves to particular and sometimes very specific ideas. In the case of Coming to Terms I wanted to exploit the specific qualities of theatrical cinema. I hope the audience read the images in a way that relates to their experience with film and narrative devices that they are already familiar with.
Can you briefly walk me through your process, from coming up with the idea to making/finding the masks and costumes to conducting the Coming to Terms shoot?
The initial idea came about after reading an article that quoted someone justifying and rationalising collateral damage in which children and infants had been killed by saying that they would grow up to be terrorists anyway. This projection of criminality or ‘badness’ dehumanised an imagined enemy and gave license for their exploitation, oppression and murder. Empathy was dissolved.
In these images I have used balaclavas and masks as signifiers for these negative perceptions and projections, and the wedding as a relatively universal ritual celebrated across cultures as something that represents union and optimism for the future. The ape mask I have used in a previous series called Siege; it was make up tester from Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes. The wedding outfits were sourced in Australia and Malaysia. My youngest uncle is a wedding planner there; he also introduced me to the monkey, ‘Aki.’
Side question: Was getting your hands on a monkey as difficult as I might guess?
Haha yeah the monkey was kind of hard to get, and coming into the shoot I didn’t have many preconceived notions or high hopes of what the outcome would be. He lived in a village in Malaysia near to my mother’s. My uncle’s vet had found it abandoned as a baby and it lived with them at their place. At first he didn’t like me at all, but after a day of hanging out he eventually came round. He really liked the photographer I work with, David Collins.
What was the conversation like between you and your models?
The Lies We Tell Ourselves to Help Us Sleep is a self-portrait. Apart from this Wedding series, my photography has primarily been self-portraiture. With ideas and difficult situations like this I am very sensitive to the needs of my subjects and don’t want there to be any sense of exploitation. This is why I appear as the subject most of the time (although it is not obvious). I wouldn’t want to ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t do myself.
What about directing your subjects for the Wedding series?
The discussions I had in Malaysia were particularly interesting to me. While the country is made up primarily of three roughly equitably sized ethno-religious groups, the official religion is Islam. This being the case the experience of young Muslims in Malaysia is very different to Australia where we are definitely a minority. I explained to them my situation in Australia and showed them some images and videos from the Cronulla riots and the recent Reclaim Australia rallies. It wasn’t vey hard to explain where I was coming from.
The models themselves were friends of my cousin Husni. Originally they were going to be another cousin and her boyfriend, but they had scheduling problems. My impression was they found the whole shoot pretty bizarre and kind of funny. The images are very serious but we were all having a good time on set.
The two apparent sections in Coming to Terms, the monkey section and the wedding section, seem like two distinct entities within the show, but with similar elements. How are they related in your mind?
In a way the wedding component of the series looks at external projections and perceptions, while the monkey component starts to be more about self-reflection. For me there is a definite dialogue between the two components of the show. Please excuse the awkward pun but each component references coming to terms with difference.
The monkey photographs seem like a continuation of your Seige series from last year. Do you connect the two as part of the same narrative, or are they completely distinct?
These monkey photographs act as a final epilogue to the Siege series. They are deliberately less confronting and depict something more tender. It was a surreal experience wearing that mask, in a Malay village, with sweat dripping down my back, looking into the eyes of this Monkey and seeing myself in their reflection. Not far out of shot was a bunch of goats. It was awesome.
The theme of alienation and prejudice implied in the Wedding photos evoke your recurring criticism of Islam's treatment in the Western world. Can you tell me about a few of your experiences as a Muslim in Australia?
I was 14 when the planes hit the towers and Muslims almost overnight became perceived as an existential threat. I grew up being told that I was one of the bad guys, and that I wasn’t really welcome in the country I was born in. I felt it most keenly through my mother who was assaulted and spat on, and generally treated like shit. Now with groups like Reclaim Australia bringing anti-Muslim sentiment into the mainstream, I feel more and more resolve to speak up. Where else in the world were there race riots against Muslims like what happened in Cronulla in 2005?
How did that impact your art?
These experiences are what drive me to make art. If I can effect positive change, even mildly, then I can’t think of anything better to make art about. My work has definitely become more and more political.
In what way?
I used to just paint pictures of my friends and people I was crushing on. It’s not like I feel massively obligated to make political work (I may be completely contradicting myself here, but today is a different day). It’s just that these are the things that drive me. They are really important to me. I can’t sit still, and when I’m forced to, I get sad. I’m sure a lot of people are like this. And to me what I make now is deeply personal. It’s emotional, it’s responsive, and I am speaking primarily from my gut. If it wasn’t personal and I was just making work to a theme, it would be entirely disingenuous. I may not talk about it casually but I don’t ever turn it off. Haha I don’t go home and take off my politics hat. I just drown it occasionally.
What do you hope people react to Coming to Terms? What is one idea you hope they walk away with?
What I don’t want to do is elicit sympathy. Fuck sympathy. If an audience can see themselves a little bit in these works maybe they can empathise. I saw a great work by Howard Lester at the Whitney Museum this week that showed the faces of all the American soldiers who were killed in a specific week in 1970 during the Vietnam War. You felt for them and their families. You empathised with them and related to their experience. But what about the thousands of Vietnamese that died that week? No fucking mention. When I watch American Sniper I’m not the American Special Forces, I’m the kid that picks up the rocket.
"Fuck sympathy" is a bold statement, though.
I wouldn’t say sympathy makes me sick, I just think that it is often misplaced. I think it is often laced pretty heavily with patronising bullshit. What frustrates me especially is the all-too-common criticism of a person who speaks about racism, or sexism is that they are trying to get some type of sympathy, or playing some type of ‘card’, or just have a ‘victim mentality.’ Talking about bad things and revealing them to be a result of a racist imperialist patriarchy isn’t ‘wanting sympathy.’
I don’t want Oprah holding my hand and telling me it’s going to be okay. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, or sorry for anyone I am talking about or engaging with. When I talk about my mother’s experience, I don’t feel sorry for her in some type of abstract external way, I internalise that pain and understand it. I empathise. I want people to look at me/them on the same level, eye-to-eye and understand where we’re coming from. So yeah, fuck sympathy, and fuck racism.
Abdul Abdullah is represented by Fehily Contemporary. He will be showing some of his work at Sydney Contemporary, which runs from September 10-13 at Carriageworks. He will also be included in Primavera, which runs from September 22-December 8 at the MCA, as well as the Asia Pacific Triennial, which opens next month at GOMA in Brisbane.