They flicked on the television just in time to see the second plane crash into the World Trade Centre.
Moments before, 14-year-old Abdul Abdullah and his brother Abdul-Rahman Abdullah (older by nine years) had been playing Gran Turismo on their PlayStation at home in Perth; now they watched in horror as smoke poured out of the Twin Towers.
It felt distant — “just another crazy thing on the news” — but then, the very next day, the repercussions were felt in their small Muslim community, Abdul recalls.
Someone threw a pig’s head into the Sikh temple in Canning Vale and graffitied the walls; their local mosque was the next to be defaced.
Then his mother was assaulted, dragged into a store by a group of men who pulled off her head scarf and left her utterly shaken.
“It wasn’t the only such incident, and the whole community was on edge. It felt quite dangerous to be outside in some places,” recalls Abdul.
As artists, Abdul and Abdul-Rahman both see their work as reckoning with Muslim identities, family and culture, yet they approach it from opposite sides of that cataclysmic event.
“My brother’s formative years were pre-9/11 and my formative years were post-9/11,” says Abdul, now 36.
“So, when he talked about his cultural and religious heritage, it was looking at the home and the domestic setting and the experience of family.
Decades later, the brothers are still mapping these commonalities and divergences.
Their new exhibition, Land Abounds, is at Ngununggula in the NSW southern highlands till July 24, and features old and new work by the brothers alongside video works by celebrated artist Tracey Moffatt (who represented Australia at the 57th Venice Biennale).
A lifelong conversation
The Abdullah brothers are a study in contrasting preoccupations, format and tone; yet when they exhibit together – as they did most recently in Peripheries I and II in 2020 and 2021 – they enter into a dialogue.
Abdul’s striking photography, traditional landscapes and award-winning portraiture are often overlaid with crude graffiti-like emojis or bold text that offer thought-provoking, political critiques of patriotism, colonialism, war and anti-immigration rhetoric.
In works like Self-portrait as an ultra-nationalist and We are the ones that look back from the abyss, he explores what it means to be an “outsider among outsiders”; his portraits of figures such as Anthony Mundine, Waleed Aly, and even himself, have seen him shortlisted five times for the Archibald Prize.
Abdul-Rahman’s intricately detailed, life-sized wooden sculptures and installations, often featuring animals, tell stories of his faith and family traditions, layering personal histories and cultural context onto a single, evocative object.
Think an utterly realistic sheep’s carcass hanging from a steel hook, conjuring memories of time spent with his father; manta rays in the rain, recalling the jetty outside his grandfather’s home; and painted wooden sculptures of Euphorbia, Monstera, Sansevieria plants that serve as a tribute to his mother and her love of family. Where Abdul’s work can be a visual shock that provokes and unsettles you, Abdul-Rahman’s tends toward the contemplative, asking that you step closer, look deeper.
It’s a dynamic that goes back to the day his brother was born, says Abdul-Rahman. They often shared the same interests – from boxing to art – and lived together as adults for a decade. They still talk every day.
What does this look like in practice?
In Land Abounds, their new exhibition, it looks like this: a dead horse painfully carved out of Indonesian jelutong timber, lying in front of a panoramic 10-metre-long landscape painting of Berrima, with this sentence scrawled across the canvas: “What would our public collections look like if we divested them of sex pests and paedophiles?”
A paedophile in the art gallery
The landscape painting is titled Legacy Assets (2022).
In the run-up to creating it, Abdul was delving into the history of Australia’s 19th- and 20th-century landscape painters.
“A lot of the motivation has come from a particularly colonial perspective and the language of ownership, the language of possession: ‘conquering the landscape’, ‘breaking frontiers’ and that sort of thing.”
But Abdul moved away from historical perspectives, and began looking more at modernist post-war artists, reading their memoirs, biographies, and diaries. He wasn’t impressed with what he found.
“What sat with me and what I couldn’t get rid of, was the fact that if these were my contemporaries, if they were my peers, I would find their personal behaviour abhorrent. I wouldn’t be friends with some of them.”
He points out that he and his siblings (besides Abdul-Rahman, he has a sister and another brother) were into boxing, and Abdul himself worked in a boxing gym for a decade.
“That could be a pretty toxic place at times, but one of the particular rules was that if somebody touched kids, they were out. That was unquestioned. And it’s weird that in the art community, that’s not always the case.
“People are treated differently, depending on how valuable their assets are, how valuable their work is. There’s people like Donald Friend, who will never be found accountable for the things that he did. But there are people who are still practising that are like that, and that so many people know about.”
Abdul doesn’t offer any solutions.
“I think there are smarter people than me that can figure that out. What I’m doing is posing the question.
Dead or only sleeping?
Simultaneously, Abdul-Rahman was thinking about horses, some of which he could see sleeping outside his studio in one corner of a 3,000-acre beef cattle farm in Mundijong, south of Perth, which has belonged to the family of his wife, artist Anna Louise Richardson, for several generations.
The first time he saw a horse sleep on its side in an undignified sprawl, he knew he wanted to sculpt it, as a contrast to those rearing, near mythic creatures so often depicted in nationalist narratives.
Horses, he believes, occupy a different place in the public imagination.
“In the historical perspective of what an Australian identity is meant to be, horses have played a big role … It’s a trophy, it’s a companion, it’s all these things; but the reality is, when a horse fails, there’s a cost-benefit analysis and it’s put down; it becomes half a tonne of pet food, and that can happen anytime.”
With his sculpture Dead Horse (2022), he wanted to force viewers to confront the inherent violence of ownership.
Paired with Legacy Assets and Dead Horse in the gallery is Tracey Moffatt’s 2009 video work Other, which meditates on the exploitation of people of colour in popular American cinema.
Alongside Doomed (2007) and Revolution (2008), it’s one of a trio of video works in Land Abounds that were made by Moffatt with her longtime collaborator Gary Hillberg.
All there for the taking
Moffatt’s montage films were created by stitching together scenes from Hollywood films, telemovies and arthouse cinema, and setting these to dramatic compositions.
For the Abdullah brothers, exhibiting alongside her feels like a career milestone.
“I would say Other is my favourite work ever made – I think I’ve been in dialogue with that particular work since the beginning of my practice,” says Abdul, who saw it first in the Singapore Biennale in 2011.
Abdul-Rahman, who studied Moffatt’s essays in arts school, says she embodies many things for him: “Her work describes the experiences of my mum in this country, her work is for everyone who wasn’t part of that Anglosphere; for Asian migrants, people coming here and battling for visibility, battling to be treated with humanity. She’s just such an important artist for so many.”
At the launch of Land Abounds, Moffatt told the audience she was delighted to have her “crazy Hollywood montage films” included in the show.
“The thing about them is that I’ve never paid for the rights to the movie clips. So, they are completely stolen … I never could afford to pay for the rights. So, the idea of the artist is you just want to make the art – do it or take it; grab it like it’s yours,” she said.
For Moffatt, there’s another thread that binds the works in Land Abounds together, and that is that they are all essentially cinematic.
She points to Abdul’s Legacy Assets – “It’s like The Sound of Music” – and Abdul-Rahman’s The Dogs which reminds her of a scene from The Omen (the 1976 horror film about the rise of the Antichrist) in which actor Gregory Peck is attacked by savage dogs.
It’s that feeling of being hunted that Abdul-Rahman set out to evoke in The Dogs (2017), which draws on his childhood memories of being chased by them: “I had a phobic relationship with dogs, they represented an animal violence that sparked panic.”
Abdul-Rahman’s black dogs are in the middle of a chase, teeth bared, bodies in motion under glittering chandeliers.
In Islam, all dogs are considered unclean, while on a superstitious level, black dogs are considered representatives of Satan, Abdul-Rahman explains.
However, the work operates on multiple levels, also exploring how the predatory instincts of dogs have been used to intimidate people, control crowds and police closed borders. The chandeliers represent the glittering aspirational spaces the animals guard.
Completing the exhibition is a series of large-scale machine-embroidered tapestries of hands by Abdul: Breach (previously shown at the Adelaide Biennial in 2020), Together 1 and Together 2 (which debuted as part of the exhibition Destiny Disrupted at the Granville Centre Art Gallery in April) and Reach, made for Land Abounds.
Created in collaboration with DGTMB Studios in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, these are among his most optimistic works, says Abdul.
The hands depicted in the tapestries reference corporate stock photography – disposable images of people shaking hands and physically connecting – which Abdul then repurposed into large-scale, carefully crafted objects.
He says it’s a reminder of a time when he was travelling in Jakarta and found himself trying to talk to people in broken English. Like emojis – which he describes as 21st century hieroglyphs – hand gestures helped bridge the language divide.
But even an emoji doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone.
In 2019, Abdul created the tapestries All Let Us Rejoice and For We Are Young and Free, featuring embroidered portraits of members of the Australian armed forces with their facial features obscured by helmets and sunglasses and stamped with crude smiley emojis.
The embroideries, created for the Artspace Mackay exhibition Violent Salt, were meant to highlight how soldiers were forced to put a brave face on in difficult circumstances, but MP George Christensen and Mackay local councillor Martin Bella argued they were disrespectful, and that taxpayers should not subsidise political messages that attacked soldiers.
The funding for Land Abounds was also called into question on an episode of The Bolt Report in March.
Recalling the experience, Abdul-Rahman admits: “I really struggle with how people at the highest level of power and authority in this country, usually politicians, will target and single out individual artists. I just do not understand the ethical grounding of that.”
Abdul sees the echoes of this in every comment or email he receives telling him to go back to where he came from.
“Regardless of when my family got here, that’s a horrible thing to say; but also, my family’s been here for seven generations,” says Abdul, whose ancestor on his father’s side arrived in Australia on the ship Indefatigable 200 years ago.
Yet with every such encounter, both brothers are only more convinced of the relevance of their work.
It was art that gave Abdul something to focus on and a way to express himself when he was at his most angry and lost; now, he hopes his work might serve someone else in that way.
“It’s for the 14-year-old version of me who’s living in Sunshine, Frankston, Auburn, Bankstown or Canning Vale (where I grew up) who is just perhaps realising that their stories have not been reflected in the mainstream; they’re not going to be on Home and Away or Neighbours or whatever.
“I’m not trying to claim their experience, but I want to speak to my own experiences that are hopefully relatable enough.”
Representation also feels profoundly important to Abdul-Rahman: “You know, someone who looks like me or has my name tends to be represented in very few, very particular ways. Whereas, for the rest of this Australian society, you’ve seen your face and name apply to every character, every role, every outcome under the sun. And that’s fine — but I haven’t.
Land Abounds is showing at Ngununggula, NSW, till July 24.
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