Story by Gail Robinson
Having just experienced the magic of this artist’s captivating work in Menagerie at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) in Melbourne, I am really looking forward to this interview.
Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s artwork; The day the sky fell down, 2014, was curated into the same space as an important work by Joseph Beuys; I like America and America likes me,1974. Abdullah’s attentive cat juxtaposed with Beuys comforting coyote lifted my sentimentality settings to high and left me thinking about our complex relationships with animals and the way we often use them as metaphors to describe ourselves.
So I have arranged to meet Abdullah at his Fremantle studio to discuss the creative process behind the works he exhibited at ACCA and to take a closer look at the integrity and appeal of a body of work laced with memory and spirituality.
His studio is on the upper floor of an old department store building but finding the entrance proves to be a little tricky so I resort to mobile technology. Acting as my guide he shows me through the generous space he shares with several other local artists to his brightly lit studio.
Animal references in various forms populate Abdullah’s workspace, so I settle in to study his own menagerie and begin by asking about the way he uses realism (or magic-realism as cited by AGWA curator Robert Cook ) in his sculpture to invite interaction.
“I like working with realism and space because it puts you in the presence of things,” he responds. “Using animals and putting people in the presence of animals – everyone has their own relationship already so it builds on their own existing truths.”
“And to be close to an animal that isn’t a pet can feel like a privilege, especially to a child.”
Growing up in urban Perth Abdullah’s main animal encounter (before contracting as a designer at Perth zoo) was the family pet – a cat similar to the one that featured in his Day series of sculptures at ACCA.
“My work is largely based on snippets of my childhood, “he explains. “A cat is just a perfect little animal – even though it lives in the domestic environment it’s not a domestic creature and in black I see it as a shadow; a protective element on the home, a connection between us and the unseen world. Cats witness everything.”
Beyond the family cat he holds another significant animal memory, that of sheep which he has explored in various forms in his short career. On the table behind me I notice he is creating another using moulds of a butchered sheep carcass, so I ask him about it.“It’s an installation for Alaska projects in Sydney (a city he has exhibited in several times in the past few years). It relates to Halal slaughter,” he explains, adding that it is connected to memories of his father conducting the ritual sheep slaughter for the family in the backyard. “It’s also a reflection of my Muslim identity.”
I ask Abdullah if the emphasis on complex political issues surrounding Muslim identity today have some impact on how his work is received.
“When I grew up being Muslim was one hundred per cent in the home, it wasn’t in the news. It had no public presence in society. Now it’s an inescapable political identity,” he says. When you present your work as Muslim art it is very difficult to separate it from the political, even though I don’t see my work as political at all.”
“Also, there isn’t much contemporary art created by Muslims here,” he continues, noting some exceptions he admires in his brother Abdul Abdullah’s work and that of Khadim Ali. “It’s a new thing here in Australia and it does interest people.”
Slightly unnerved by the perfectly recast silicon sheep’s head he is now holding I move on to asking Abdul-Rahman Abdullah about his process for conceptual development. “Mostly my ideas are a thought process,” he says. “An idea could bounce around in my head for a couple of years sometimes. For instance I laid down the ideas for the carcass I’m making when I was at art school (he attended both the VCA and Curtin University). I figure if an idea has been kicking around that long it has to happen.”
“Although sometimes,” he adds, “my skills have to catch up with the idea.” He indicates some of his more recent carved works, like a strikingly realistic dove in a bowl he has created for an upcoming show. “I tended to use other techniques like moulds before and hadn’t carved much,” he says. “But I love how direct wood is and carving is strongly connected to drawing so I proclaimed 2014 as my year of wood. Although I think 2015 will be too because I’m enjoying it.”
If you’d like a little of Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s magic in your reality, you can catch his work at shows for the Art Gallery of WA and at Here & Now15 at Lawrence Wilson Gallery around April.
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