Words and photos by Jamie Preisz
Everyone has that friend who seems to be able to try their hand at anything and get really good, really quickly.
Part of you crumples with rage, but it’s totally unjustified in the case of Abdul Abdullah, because not only is he talented, but a genuinely nice person to boot. Abdul has a remarkable ability to skip across mediums, subjects, and boundaries; like one of those lizards that can run on water.
Abdul is a Sydney-based artist (originally from Perth) gearing up to be one of Australia’s most exciting young contemporary artists. He’s already been hung in the Archibald, exhibited at the MCA, and worked his way into countless international collections.
Born and raised in Perth as the youngest of three brothers, he began his studies in journalism and found a passion for the political early on. “I wanted to be a journalist as a means of exposing and combating injustice,” he says. “As a kid I protested the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, but at the same time felt pretty powerless to do anything meaningful about it. I thought journalism would give me the voice that I didn’t otherwise have. It turns out that I’m a little bit more suited to art.”
After seeing his older brother Abdul-Rahman Abdullah—9 years his senior—go to art school in 1995, it opened up the possibility of his own ventures into art. The influence seems clear when looking at their work side by side.
“My brother is my number one sounding board,” Abdul tells me. “We bounce ideas off each other all the time. He’s the first person I discuss ideas with. He pushes me and I push him. We’re in this together.”
In recent years, Perth has acted as an incubator for some of Australia’s best artists and musicians—Tame Impala and the effortless progression from street art to fine art by Ian Strange (Kid Zoom), are but two examples. While Abdul acknowledges Perth’s vibrant arts community, he maintains that the east coast is where the action is.
“I think it’s really important that I’m in Sydney,” he says. “Here I have access to conversations and people that I didn’t at all in Perth. In Sydney I’m in a studio of 20 full-time artists. Professional advice is literally in the studio next door.”
“One of the difficult things about Perth is the lack of places to exhibit,” Abdul continues. “There are a few good young artist-run initiatives, but beyond that you kind of go straight to the big institutions like AGWA and PICA. There’s not really much in between.”
In May of 2016, Attorney General George Brandis cut $105 million from 4 years of arts funding, with the strongest impact landing on smaller arts organisations. The “in between” Abdul is referring to, is fast disappearing in Australia. The ladder for Australian artists to climb—from local shows to bigger galleries and international representation—is quickly vanishing, and with no way to foster our talented young creatives, we find our country falling behind on the world stage.
“The only organisations that will be unaffected are the ones that support themselves 100% commercially,” says Abdul. “It’s not like these remaining places aren’t worthwhile, but without the diversity, and without the curatorially focused spaces, practices will trend towards what is more commercially viable. This results in less challenging work, and more decorative shit. Decorative shit is fine, but if that’s all we’ve got, things will stagnate pretty quickly.”
Despite these apparent setbacks the overall health of the Australian art scene, Abdul seems to be breaking through those barriers and has an optimistic outlook on his practice.
“The first time I met Richard Bell (Australian artist and political activist) was on a visit to Brisbane in 2012,” Abdul tells me. “We were sitting with Vernon Ah Kee and Gordon Hookey in Richard’s kitchen having a cup of tea. I asked the group if they were each only having a commercial show maybe once every 18 months, how do you earn a living in the meantime? Richard looked at me, laughed, and said, ‘By making fucking good art.’ ”
Stretching across mediums, a multidisciplinary approach to art is a prerequisite of world class contemporary work today, and Abdul is no stranger. His practice ranges from painting to photography, installation, and even sculpture.
“I think, as a contemporary artist practising in 2017 with an eye on the future, it is essential to have a diverse practice. The value in what we do doesn’t reside in the materials we use—it’s in the ideas. Things can be manufactured, and things can be built. What differentiates a good piece of work from a shit one, is why it exists.”