At first glance, Adbul Abdullah’s photography might conjure confusing feelings. The imagery is unfamiliar and, at times, morose: a man, ensconced in a monkey mask, embraces a chimp like one of his children; a husband and wife, are adorned in balaclavas and profusely colored wedding garb. It takes more than a passing glance to recognize their innate politicization. In fact, Abdullah’s work attempts to distill the Muslim experience in a post-9/11 world: demonization, unprompted surveillance, and an unfair meaning of violence heaped onto your very existence and way of life.
While Abdullah’s youth didn’t take place in the immediate wake of 9/11 (he says he’s “on the older cusp of a generation who has grown up in the era of the war on terror”), and he grew up in Australia, not America. But with the recent proliferation of Muslim emigres from Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Pakistan in Australia, a backlash of reactionary dissent has flourished, prompting even the country’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbot, to utter paranoid admonitions about terrorist groups like the Islamic State: “Daesh is coming, if it can, for every person and for every government with a simple message: submit or die.”
Even though his art speaks to the Muslim experience, Abdullah is quick to point out that, in 2015, that experience is far from monolithic. He says he can only gather a fragmented view into the lives of myriad American Muslims via the lens of television broadcasts and internet banter. But his work provides the platform for a much more thoughtful examination of his culture on the whole. His most recent photo series, Coming to Terms, is being showcased at Bushwick’s Chasm Gallery. We decided to talk to Abdullah, who is primarily a painter, about the exhibit below.
How has growing up in a post 9-11 world as a secular Muslim informed your work?
Abdul Abdullah: I’m really careful about language and don’t really like terms like “moderate Muslim” and “secular Muslim.” While I appreciate what they suggest, I feel they are used to placate the insecurities of non-Muslims. In the same way I sometimes raise the tone of my voice, or hesitate to say my name, or to preface my introduction with some self-deprecating comment to disarm and cater to and manage the sensibilities of whom I am dealing with, so as not to come across as oppositional. Either way I think this reinforces the stereotype that the “good Muslim” is the exception rather than the norm.
Being a Muslim who is probably on the older cusp of a generation who has grown up in the era of the war on terror, I have seen first hand the politicization of my identity. In the popular imagination we are the bad guys who represent an existential threat. There is a particular cynicism that develops in a person who has grown up thinking the world hates them. I think these frustrations come through in my work and inform my processes.
I’ve read that you’re not an overtly political person in conversation, but it clearly comes across in your work. What’s the message you’re trying to convey with projects like Monsters and Coming to Terms?
It’s true I like to have a good time, and don’t really talk about this stuff casually. It takes quite a shift for me to go into this mode of thinking, although it is always there. I’d be totally depressed otherwise. With these projects I am particularly interested in the perception people have of other people and how badness is projected onto people. I think this projection of badness is the outcome of preconceived notions of what that person represents. I am also figuring out how to come to terms with these differences. Essentially I want to elicit and inspire empathy. Save the sympathy for the little kid who trips and hurts their knee. One of the problems is people often don’t know the difference.
What’s different about conveying the meaning behind your work through photographs, as opposed to painting?
Photography comes with what I’ve called an “assumption of evidence.” There are probably a bunch of people who have talked about this before. I try to exploit how photography appears to offer a window into something that actually happened. While you can mess with a photograph as much as a painting, I think through the history of cinema especially, audiences have developed a keen capacity for visual analysis. I am able to use signifiers that may not be read as well in a painting.
Speaking of Coming to Terms specifically, I can’t really wrap my head around many of the portraits. Can you elaborate on their weird, hidden details?
Each image in the series offers different details, and each detail is deliberate. I spend a good deal of time designing and developing the signifiers that I want to be read in an image. The outfits are sourced from all over the place, and the images with the Monkey were taken in Malaysia. The Monkey’s name was Aki and lived in a village not far from my Mother’s. He was awesome. He didn’t like me at all, but eventually came round.
Do you think the Muslim experience is different in the United States than it is in Australia? Why or why not?
It’s hard to say. I don’t really know the experience of Muslim in the US other than what I have read online and watched on television. I think we have a lot in common, and I think in many ways Australia has adopted a lot of the American experience. I know many people who know more about your history than ours. For a country with such a small population we have had way more than our fair share of race riots and anti Muslim sentiment. I think it’s pretty crappy all around at the moment.
Visit Coming to Terms at Chasm Gallery at 58 Bogart Street, Bushwick.
Follow Sam Blum on Twitter @Blumnessmonster