Sydney based artist Abdul Abdullah knows from personal experience what it is like to be judged because of your name or religion. The seventh generation Australian has received strong and at times, abusive responses to his work which explores the experiences of young Australian Muslims. Abdul, a finalist in Australia's 2016 Archibald Prize for portraiture, has painted the portraits of Australian Muslim media commentator Waleed Aly and sportsman Anthony Mundine.
As a child, what did you dream of doing (or becoming)?
“I wanted to be a lawyer. As a teenager I hoped to become a journalist, and follow in the footsteps of John Pilger.”
People might be surprised that you’re a seventh generation Australian and that your family has roots in both Australia and Malaysia. How would you describe your childhood?
“I grew up the youngest of four children. My mother is Malaysian and grew up with Islam, but my father converted in 1971.
When I was a child, he was the secretary of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils.
My parents were very conservative, but they nurtured creative inquisition in all their children and encouraged us to pursue the arts.
My eldest brother runs art departments in Western Australia Correctional Services and my other brother is also a professional artist. My sister now owns a boxing gym.”
You’ve previously said your "religious and cultural identity has become quite politicised". What does this mean?
"I’ve always been a politically minded person, and it was always my intention to eventually make politicised work, but this process was accelerated in response to the 2005 Cronulla [race] riots [in Sydney] and the hate mail I received after painting Waleed Aly [Australian social commentator and media personality] in the 2011 Archibald Prize.”
What are the things that influence your art practise?
“I am influenced by ongoing political discussions in Australia that have created an environment where acceptable speech in regards to Muslims and other minorities has shifted in an unfavourable way."
You’ve exhibited internationally — including solo shows in New York and London — and you’ve also received hate mail for your work. Can you talk about the diversity of responses to your work?
“The criticism I have received is rarely about the work I make. Primarily it is directed at what people think my name and religious identity represent. It’s difficult to respond to these messages because they are comprised of inaccurate assumptions about who I am, what I do and what I think. To these people it doesn’t really matter what the reality is, because for them I represent an existential threat.”
You’ve previously painted portraits of Anthony Mundine [Australian sportsman] and Waleed Aly. In what ways did the process of painting these two prominent men shape your thoughts on Australian-Muslim identity?
“Anthony Mundine and Waleed Aly are very different characters. Reading Waleed Aly’s book People Like Us definitely helped me understand who I was and where I fit. These two specific men are also a good example of how diverse the make-up and opinions of the [Muslim] community are.”
You painted the portrait of Craig Campbell, a police sergeant who used his baton to defend two men who were ganged up on during the 2005 Cronulla race riots in Sydney. This portrait was a finalist in the 2016 Archibald Prize. Why did his story resonate with you?
“I’ve never had an overly positive experience with police, but I’ve admired Craig Campbell since I saw him on the news broadcasts covering the 2005 Cronulla riots. To me, he was someone who went above and beyond his call of duty to do the right thing — when so many people were doing the wrong thing. He put his body on the line and he saved the lives of two men being bashed on a train."
Imagine that you had the chance to host a barbeque — anywhere in Australia. If you could invite three Australian guests (dead or alive) — who would they be?
“Paul Keating [former prime minister], Gary Foley [Indigenous activist, artist and academic] and Malcolm Turnbull [current Prime Minister] — and I wouldn’t say a thing. I’d just sit there and listen.”
What would be your advice to your 15-year-old self?
“Invest in Apple. Lol nah. I don’t know what advice I’d give my 15-year-old-self. I wouldn’t want myself to not make any of the mistakes I did. They were all formative and beneficial in the long run.
Maybe just — be brave, no one really cares what you do, and don’t be embarrassed about anything.”
Abdul Abdullah's portrait of Craig Campbell is in the Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until 9 October 2016.