oil on board
270 × 270cm
Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased with funds provided by the MCA Foundation, 2016
This large portrait of a man, caught as though in mid-conversation, is titled Caliban, after a central character in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Caliban is a half-human ‘mooncalf’, son of the witch Sycorax and the sole inhabitant of the island on which he was born until a storm shipwrecks father and daughter, Prospero and Miranda, there. Caliban functions in the play as a ridiculed and disempowered outsider – the ‘other’ to Prospero’s Eurocentric assumption of authority. By dint of its title, Abdul Abdullah’s portrait positions its subject as the marginalised and oppressed figure in an unequal power relation.
Abdullah, a seventh-generation Australian of Muslim background, identified with the oppressed Caliban while in high school. He has referenced the character in a number of his works, referring to himself and his brothers in one self-portrait as Sons of Sycorax. Abdullah was 14 when the September 11 terrorist attacks occurred. He came of age at a time of hostility and suspicion towards Muslims in Australia, when, as he has noted, ‘you couldn’t open a newspaper, turn on the television or listen to the radio without being reminded you were the bad guy and that you were frankly unwelcome. The war on terror felt like a war on you.’
The politicisation of his identity as the ‘bad guy’ has led Abdullah to create works – mostly portraits and self-portraits – critiquing Islamophobic depictions of Muslim youth in Australia. His work has challenged viewers’ expectations and assumptions through confronting images of masked people – some in Muslim clothing wearing chimpanzee masks, others in racially vilifying t-shirts and balaclavas decorated with the Australian flag. In both, Abdullah dissects the idea of the faceless mob who defend or disrupt the idea of the Australian nation on the basis of their own biases and prejudices.
This portrait of a contemplative man skirts the stereotype by going straight to the individual and the personal – a man who may or may not be Muslim, may or may not be Australian. But, as Caliban, he represents someone who is ostracised and diminished; expressing the experience of many young Muslim Australian men, whose transition into adulthood was coloured by their exclusion from the Australian mainstream.
Then there’s the language and rhetoric that’s been associated with the war on terror. We’ve all grown up with it. We’re all around the same age … when 9/11 happened we were 14 years old and that’s coloured our entire transition into adulthood. We went from being an eccentricity to being the bad guy. It felt like it happened overnight.
Abdul Abdullah, 2014
Abdul Abdullah talks identity, religion and belonging in this interview filmed for Primavera 2015. Curator of Primavera 2015 Nicole Foreshew recorded this interview during a research trip to Abdullah’s studio.
Born 1986, Perth. Lives and works Sydney.
Abdul Abdullah is a seventh-generation Australian Muslim whose work addresses the politicisation of Muslim identity within mainstream Australian culture. Working across portraiture, photography and painting, Abdullah uses his experience of growing up Muslim in the suburbs of Perth, and coming of age in a post-September 11 world, to expose the prejudices and stereotypes which have demonised and marginalised Muslim youth today.
Abdullah has been exhibiting since 2008. Selected solo exhibitions include I See a Darkness, Future Perfect, Singapore (2014); Homeland, Fehily Contemporary, Melbourne (2013); Mongrel, Fehily Contemporary, Melbourne (2012); and Them and Us, Kings Artist Run, Melbourne (2011).
Selected group exhibitions include Primavera, MCA, Sydney (2014); WA Focus: Abdul-Rahman Abdullah and Abdul Abdullah, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth (2015); Sealed Section, Artbank, Sydney (2014); Being Eurasian, Fremantle Arts Centre, Fremantle (2013); Beyond Likeness: Contemporary Portraits, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, University of Western Australia, Perth (2012); You Am I: An Exhibition of Contemporary Australian Muslim Artists, Hume Global Learning Centre, Melbourne (2011); Creative Culture, Australia on Collins, Melbourne (2010); KIDS, Moores Building Contemporary Art Gallery, Fremantle (2009); and Curtin Graduate Show, Curtin University, Perth (2008).
Abdullah’s work is included in numerous collections including the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA); the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Artbank, Sydney; University of Western Australia, Perth; Murdoch University, Perth; Islamic Museum of Australia, Melbourne; Campbelltown Arts Centre, NSW; and Bendigo Art Gallery, Victoria.Learn more