Reviewed by: Freya Hall
Brothers Abdul Abdullah and Abdul-Rahman Abdullah are frequently touted as ‘emerging’ Western Australian artists. ‘Emerging’, in the context of artistic dialogue, is often used as a euphemism to describe artists who are talented but also amateurish, inexperienced, or naïve.
However, having visited the WA Focus exhibition at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, it is safe to say that there is nothing ‘emerging’ about these brothers; they have well and truly arrived.
WA Focus is an exhibition series run by the Art Gallery of Western Australia that showcases contemporary works by local artists in the form of four annual projects. The inaugural project is an amalgamation of recent works by brothers Abdul Abdullah and Abdul-Rahman Abdullah. Although government-run artistic institutions are usually associated with the archaic, this showcase is saturated with a rare vitality that leaves one excited about Western Australia’s wealth of talent and the prospect of future editions in this project.
To find the WA Focus exhibition space you need to veer right around the spiral staircase that obscures it on the ground floor of the gallery – if you hit the toilets you’ve gone too far. Do not let this inconspicuous positioning fool you, once you enter the exhibition you will be shell-shocked by a fistful of art. To your left a silicone lamb carcass hangs from the ceiling on a butcher’s chain, on the floor a serene child sits admiring a grandiose chandelier, and on almost every wall monkey masks gaze down at you menacingly.
Although the brothers do not collaborate artistically together on any pieces in this exhibition, the harmonious amalgamation of their independent works bears testament to their shared experiences and talents. In particular, both artists are heavily influenced by their Islamic heritage but have unique perspectives on what it means to be conspicuously Muslim in contemporary Australian society.
Notably, Abdul-Rahman was born in 1977 and is 9 years older than Abdul, meaning that he has a stronger recollection of what it was like to be Muslim in a pre-September 11 world. Abdul-Rahman explained that growing up in the south-eastern suburbs of Perth he did not feel ‘othered’, despite the fact that his family adhered to Islamic dress codes and were ‘visibly’ Muslim.
The religious acceptance Abdul-Rahman experienced throughout childhood emanates through his works; they are principally warm, evocative, joyous, tongue-in-cheek, and laced with nostalgia. His work Wednesday’s Child is a sculptural self-portrait of his 9-year-old self that evokes memories of the grandiose aspirations associated with unadulterated adolescence.
The garish lamb carcass hanging from the rooftop, splattered in fake blood, is another work by Abdul-Rahman. This piece, entitled In the Name, may, on first inspection, appear to be an exception to Abdul-Rahman’s thematic consistency. However, this work is reminiscent of a time when his father slaughtered sheep in their backyard because halal meat was not readily available. Although brazen in its delivery, this sculpture is also rooted in nostalgia and is ostensibly a reference to the sacrifice and gratitude associated with that experience.
Abdul, on the other hand, grew up in a society that was increasingly intolerant and distrustful of Muslim people. His adolescence was marred with frustration and rebellion; sentiments that he now channels into his politically charged works. Abdul himself has described his works as ‘assertive’, although his brother has labelled them ‘aggressive’.
The photographic series Siege is a manifestation of the artist’s political agenda – it is confident and unapologetic. The series includes a number of portraits of Abdul and a female subject wearing a mask that is apparently from the Planet of the Apes, but which resembles an eviscerated human face similar to that worn by the villain in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre saga, Leatherface. These photographs are also characterised by a shallow, black, visual pane that snares the viewer, forcing them to confront the grotesque subject and reflect upon their own prejudices amid growing feelings of claustrophobia.
Of the artworks on display I particularly admired this series because it refused to pander to delusions that we live in a just and equitable society. Although not all audiences will be receptive to such a precarious assertion, I believe the photographs are justifiably impenitent in their criticism of the way that marginalised and migrant groups are vilified and dehumanised in Australia and beyond.
However all of the works in this exhibition are remarkable: they will seduce you with their potency, mesmerize you with their aptitude, enthral you with their complexity, and command your devotion with their presence. Abdul-Rahman Abdullah and Abdul Abdullah are wildly talented, established artists, and this exhibition is proof of that.
This first instalment of the WA Focus series will be on display until the 27 July 2015.