hy did you want to become an artist? Is art something that runs in the family for you?
I am very lucky that both my older brothers went to art school before me, so I had their experiences to draw from. That being said though, I never thought I would be an artist, and it took me longer than my brothers to start studying. After I finished school I just worked for a while before starting a journalism degree, and got most of the way through it before picking up an elective in the art department. I found art fulfilled a similar role to journalism without any pretense of neutrality or objectivity. I make art because it gives me a voice I wouldn’t otherwise have.
As a seventh generation Muslim Australian, do you/have you experienced racist attitudes first hand? If so, has it been direct or the more subtle, insidious kind (which is arguably worse). How does this influence your art practice?
Yes growing up in Australia brown, and with a name like mine, I experienced the full gamut of racist taunts familiar to non-white Australians. Things really ramped up though after September 11, 2001 where the community I was a part of was, what seemed at least to me, suddenly repositioned as the ‘bad guy’ in the popular imagination. I felt this tension primarily through my mother who suffered assaults and abuse in public, following those terrorist attacks. Since painting Waleed Aly in the 2011 Archibald I have intermittently received waves of hatemail. And also the more insidious kind that you mention is always there, just under the surface. It comes in the way people react to my name, and in the subtle differences in which they treat me. All this influences how I make art. Largely my practice consists of holding a mirror to these perceptions and biases.
“I found art fulfilled a similar role to journalism without any pretense of neutrality or objectivity. I make art because it gives me a voice I wouldn’t otherwise have.”
ustralia seems to pride itself on being a multicultural and accepting society, however with the increasing popularity of Pauline Hanson and a government which perpetuates the ‘stop the boats’ message, this is hard to believe. What is your take on this? Is the ‘multicultural’ line we tell ourselves a fallacy?
I was on a panel with medical anthropologist Dr. Gregory Phillips who said that we don’t live in a multicultural society; we live in a multiracial society with one dominant culture. He said multiculturalism suggests there is equity amongst cultures, and that is not the case in Australia. According to people like Pauline Hanson, we should assimilate to her ‘culture’ or fuck off, and her views are shared by a lot of people.
Do you feel that your artwork has been successful in helping to shift people’s perceptions and foster a more accepting society? If so, can you give us an example?
I don’t know. I hope so. What I will say is that the best chance I think I have of effecting positive change is the work I do in schools, juvenile justice facilities and outreach programs. There I know what I say and can share have the potential to improve people’s situations. Maybe it’s too late for my generation, but I won’t stop chipping away at the next one.
Who or what do you think is to blame for painting Muslims as the bad guy / scapegoat?
The treatment of Muslims in Australia in 2017 is an extension of Western Imperial Enterprise that has expanded, colonised, exploited and subjugated the Muslim world for the last 500 years. People don’t seem to see that. Colonisation and the imperialism have always been about powerful entities and their acquisition of land, resources and labour. In the 21st Century it is not enough for those powers to say ‘that group has something I want, so I am going to take it’. Now to obfuscate the injustice of it all, the powerful have to convince their populous that the victims of their power somehow deserve the mistreatment. It all comes down from the top: make Muslims out as the bad guys who deserve inhumane treatment, so no one feels bad when we invade and pillage their lands.
ou painted a portrait of Waleed Aly for the Archibald Prize. How did this come about?
I was lucky in that I got to him before he was famous. My father had given me a copy of his book ‘People like us’, and I read it front to back without putting it down. Back then it was really easy to get his email address. He agreed to meet me at a pub after his band ‘Robot Child’ played, we had a coffee in the back bar, and the rest is history.
Do you feel that with figures like Waleed in the public eye, Australian attitudes to and understanding of Muslim culture are starting to change for the better?
I love Waleed. I think it’s really important that he is there as a voice. I think he has only made a positive contribution. I don’t know if it is about understanding Muslim culture, but more about just seeing Muslims as people. The culture is really irrelevant to how we are perceived.
What’s in store for the rest of 2017?
I’ve had around 10 shows so far, and I’ll have at least another dozen before the year is out. The two next big ones are PATAKA Art Museum in New Zealand with my brother Abdul-Rahman Abdullah and Khaled Sabsabi, and I will presenting a a new solo at Sydney Contemporary.
Favourite Book ‘People like us’ by Waleed Aly (there are too many favourite books)
Favourite Film Un Prophete
Favourite Band / Musician Kendrick Lamar (currently – it changes)
If you weren’t an artist, what would you be? An unemployed journalist
If you could change one thing about the world what would it be? The people