Entertainment

Abdul Abdullah Talks About His Art, Australia, and Being the Bad Guy

Twenty nine year-old Sydney Artist Abdul Abdullah can trace his family's history in Australia back the days of convicts, but he says he's being increasingly treated as a threat by his fellow countrymen.

by Lauren Gillin
Mar 4 2015, 4:25am

"We Are the Ones Who Look Back From the Abyss". All images courtesy of Abdul Abdullah

Twenty nine year-old Sydney Artist Abdul Abdullah can trace his family's history in Australia back to the days of convicts, but he says he's being increasingly treated as a threat by his fellow countrymen. Abdullah has Malaysian and Australian heritage and identifies as a Muslim. It is this part of his identity and how it causes others to treat him that is the catalyst for much of his art.

Through his art Abdullah says he has found a way to confront what he calls the politicisation of his identity. This has made him a controversial figure in both the art world and the Muslim community, Abdul regularly receives hate mail as a result of his highly regarded yet abrasive work.

"Entertainers (Kanye, Beyonce and Madonna)"

Abdul says Muslims are perceived as a threat to the Australian way of life and his art holds a mirror up to an increasingly aggressive Australian nationalism.

VICE caught up him to find out about his work and what it's like living in a society that sees you as the bad guy.

VICE: What do you think the average man or women on the street thinks about Muslims?
Abdul Abdullah: I think the average man or woman on the street is a fiction, but I know what you mean. Most people don't like Muslims. We make them feel uncomfortable. I've been surprised by some very liberal people who I have met who held remarkable prejudices against a quarter of the world's population.

Why do you think Muslims make people uncomfortable?
I think people feel uncomfortable about Muslims because of the ideologies they believe we represent. People feel their liberties are being threatened. We have become the embodiment of society's insecurities.

Give me an example of a time you have felt like you were treated differently because you are a Muslim.
There is always that moment of hesitation when I tell someone my name. In that second all the possible connotations run through their head. I am treated differently all of the time. Implicitly it happens all the time, but there are occasions when it is explicit, for example calling up about renting a house in Perth and having a great chat with the landlord about what the place was like, and at the very end of the conversation giving my name and being told it wasn't available, only to call them back half an hour later, giving my name as Jonathan to be told I could move in the next week. The most jarring situations though always were experienced through my mother. She has been assaulted, spat on, and yelled at. Her scarf has been torn off and she has been chased. People have been fucking assholes to my mum.

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Did you see Tony Abbott's counter terrorism speech earlier this week when he implied the Muslim community was not doing enough to fight radicalisation and violence within its ranks? What did you think?
It's dismissive, it's reductive and it is insulting to whole community. It throws out the efforts of Muslim leaders and community members who speak out and actively try and prevent criminal activity and violent extremism. It's like all those efforts were for naught. It was appealing to the lowest common denominator. Fuck, a leadership spill? Better drum up some fears about national security.

What do you think Tony Abbott thinks about Muslims?
I don't know if Tony Abbott thinks much about anything, but I don't think he likes Muslims. I think he feels his leadership and his government is under pressure and he wants to shore up support by focusing energy on a common enemy. He gets tough on boat people (who are largely Muslim), and pumps up the rhetoric about the 'war on terror', which seems to me a proxy war on all Muslims, because it seems we're all suspect.

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But if we were to follow Abbott's line of thinking for a second, what are your thoughts about ISIS?
If everything I read is true, ISIS are bad people. It spins me out though, when you see that 17 year old Australian talking in that video with his kalashnikov surrounded by all those bad ass motherfuckers with their kalashnikovs, you can see how it would appeal to someone on the fringe. It's about being accepted into a group, being part of something bigger than you, having a cause and being righteous, and shooting guns. I am not at all sympathetic to ISIS, but I am sympathetic to the young people caught up in something as crazy as it is.

Muslim women get treated a lot worse in Australia than the men, partly because the type of person who is likely to have a go at a stranger is the type of person who is more likely to have a go at lady or a kid.

Have things changed for Muslims, particularly young men, since the rise of ISIS?
If people were secretly threatened by young Muslim men before, now it's ok to be public about it. Like Tony Abbott said, all we need is a knife and we can commit an act of terrorism, and the wider Australian community perceives us all of being capable of it.

What about young Muslim women?
I think we are viewed differently. The wider Australian community speaks out against young Muslim men and women, but they also speak on behalf of young Muslim women. There are a lot of strong voices in the Muslim community that are ignored by the wider Australian community because they don't fit that bullshit orientalist cliche of being timid, obedient women. Muslim women get treated a lot worse in Australia than the men, partly because they are generally more visible and partly because the type of person who is likely to have a go at a stranger is the type of person who is more likely to have a go at lady or a kid.

Why do you make the kind of art you do?
I have found art has given me a voice. It allows me to contribute without having to align myself with any political narrative. Like Juan Davila, I am haranguing the nation. At the end of the day I am trying to effect positive change. It might not do much for my generation, but maybe it will help my nine year-old nephew grow into an adult in better circumstances.

"I Want to Hold Your Hand"

What reaction does your art get?
It's polarising. It's deliberately abrasive. I get a mixed response from non-Muslims and Muslims alike. Some of the biggest objections come from within the Muslim community, from people who believe I have an obligation to other Muslims. But I don't make Islamic art. It's not Muslim art. I am an artist who happens to be Muslim and I use signifiers from my personal experience, and sometimes they reference my background.

There is a lot of talk about a post 9/11 era for Muslims in the West. You are seventh-generation Australian, has your experience of growing up Muslim been different from previous generations in your family?
Yes definitely. I was 14 when the planes hit the towers so my entire transition into adulthood was overshadowed by the war on terror. It felt like Muslims became the bad guys overnight. In the popular imagination we were the new communists. My older brothers and sister grew up in the 80s and early 90s, and things were different then. My brother Abdul-Rahman said that being a Muslim then was maybe considered an eccentricity, but it only became a politicised identity in Australia after 9/11.

Do you think Muslims are unique in the way they are viewed by mainstream Australia or do you think all minorities are viewed the same way?
Aboriginal people have been suffering since white people first landed here. I guess Muslims are unique as we are seen as an external, ideological, existential threat. There are a lot of racist people in Australia who hold prejudices against a lot of minorities, but no group threaten their way of life as much us Muslims.

You've said you want to encourage a more balanced understanding of the Muslim identity in the Australian community. What do you mean by more balanced and what exactly is the Muslim identity in Australia?
I can't remember saying that, but it sounds like something I'd say. I want to able to be able to get on with my day without being made to justify my name, my religion, and my colour. The community is as diverse as any other, and people who insist otherwise can fuck off.

See more of Abdul's art here

Follow Lauren on Twitter: @theljg