Over the April-July period, HERE&NOW16 / GenYM ran at UWA’s Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, an exhibition curated by UWA graduate Hamida Novakovich. Featuring diverse works by nine early to mid-career Muslim artists, it dealt with themes of childhood, heritage, identity, and alienation within the context of modern Australia.
During its run, posters advertising the exhibition were found vandalised. A number were defaced by a message alleging the works to be sacrilegious, with the rest torn down. “Art is very clearly forbidden to Muslims”, the message read, followed by a misquoted passage from a Hadith (a record of the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings): “The makers of these images will be punished, and it will be said to them, Bring to life that which you have created.”
The identity of the individual behind the vandalism is unclear, and unlikely to be resolved. However, the clear misinterpretation of the Hadith gives indication they were a non-Muslim. Ultimately such speculation in this regard bears little use – it is enough to say that any kind of action which seeks to undermine and damage individuals’ freedom and integrity is not to be tolerated.
The university chose neither to respond to the incident, nor notify the UWA community or public. Upon Pelican’s request, LWAG’s Chief Cultural Officer Professor Ted Snell later provided the following statement:
“We’re extremely proud of HERE&NOW16 / GenYM. This was the first exhibition in Australia to showcase the maturing voices of Gen Y Muslims and we wanted to provide a place where the contributing artists could boldly and unapologetically speak their minds on the topics close to them.
“We pride ourselves on making LWAG a safe space for dangerous ideas and sometimes that means having tough conversations. We’re disappointed that some people felt the need to deface our posters, but honestly we would have been more disappointed if such an important exhibition failed to
generate a strong response from the audience.”
Two of the artists featured were the highly-acclaimed brothers Abdul Abdullah and Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, described as “the most prominent of Western Australia’s emerging artists” by flagship Australian visual arts magazine Art Monthly in 2015. It was Abdul-Rahman’s ‘Practical Magic’ art installation that was featured on the posters, and it was younger brother Abdul who shared a photograph of the vandalised material via Instagram. With LWAG’s assistance, we were able to contact both artists to discuss the incident, as well as their views on the damaging stereotypes of Muslim people currently on the rise in Australia and elsewhere, and the importance of resilience against such attitudes and attacks.
How do you interpret these acts of vandalism, and what was your reaction?
Abdul-Rahman: To me, it wasn’t a particularly surprising occurrence. Unfortunately whenever an image or idea that specifically discusses Muslims in any way is given a public voice then there is an inevitably negative reaction that always accompany the welcoming and supportive responses. There is a section of society that seems to be committed to resisting the idea of Muslims being a part of the Australian cultural landscape. It’s really disheartening to see their opinions being increasingly legitimised by divisive political agendas that support their brand of xenophobia indirectly and in some cases very directly. This particular vandalism was particularly insidious in its attempt to use Islamic language and ideas to attack the exhibition, although the perpetrators obvious misunderstanding of some very basic language made it pretty clear the attack was coming from non-Muslims. These acts of vandalism coincided with a firebomb that was placed outside of a Muslim School in Thornlie. It demonstrates that the Islamophobic agenda goes far beyond words and criticism.
Did you anticipate the exhibition would draw controversy, and perhaps incur even worse attack?
Abdul: Honestly I hadn’t thought much about it. I thought it had the potential to disturb people, but the people who are disturbed by it are also disturbed about my name. There is not much I can do about that. None of the work is particularly controversial, but that doesn’t matter. Just the mention of Islam or Muslims upsets a certain type of person.
Abdul-Rahman: To be honest I don’t spend a lot of time anticipating negativity. Drawing this type of response serves to reinforce the relevance and necessity of discussing Muslim identity here in Australia. I’ll keep doing my job and telling my story. The idea of worse attacks does float through my mind, but I’ll cross that bridge when it comes. As artists we’re way too busy to worry about what the bigots will do next.
Have any other artworks or series of yours been targeted by acts of hate in the past? If yes, in what forms did this hate take?
Abdul:I have had my didactic panel vandalised at Lawrence Wilson gallery at a previous exhibition. Most often people who take issue express themselves with ugly emails, or letters to the paper or calls to radio stations. In the past, threats have been made to galleries I have shown at.
Abdul-Rahman: Yes, usually the vitriol comes from online commentary, from anonymous trolls who seem to have nothing better to do. My work isn’t overtly political but there are some people who can’t seem to rationalise the fact that actual Muslims don’t fit their tiny little worldview and they like to let me know.
What does it mean for artistic expression to be threatened in such a crude and flagrant way? What is, in your view, the best way to respond?
Abdul: As an artist all I can do to respond is to keep going about making the work I make. I will continue to challenge these nasty perceptions. I may never sway a person who is so vehemently opposed to my culture, and myself but I will endeavour to reveal their position to everyone else as a weak position.
Abdul-Rahman: I can only speak for myself in this regard. I think the best way that I can respond is to keep making work that provides a counter-narrative to consistently negative portrayals we see and hear in the media. I don’t feel that they’re threatening artistic expression in a broader sense; the attacks are aimed at a very specific community. I want to let them know that I’m happy, I’m surrounded by loving people, I’m contributing to the cultural ecology of Australia and the things they want to say about me don’t actually make sense.
A lot of your artwork – particularly yours Abdul – can be said that which takes risk; which openly confronts the viewer with images and ideas they may otherwise take pains to avoid or de-prioritise. What is the value of art which takes risk, particularly when it comes to challenging dominant narratives?
Abdul: It’s funny I’ve been thinking about this recently. I don’t find any of my own work provocative, but by the nature of who made it, it can’t help but be. I don’t think that I am deliberately and unnecessarily courting danger, but rather holding up a mirror to the uglier side of our society. There is always risk when you reveal how shit some people can be.
Abdul, in past interviews you have mentioned the figure of the ‘outsider’. What role does the outsider play in your work?
Abdul: By ‘outsider’ I mean someone who exists outside of popular expressions and experiences of dominant culture. I very much exist outside of those parameters in an Australian context, and probably a global one. The issue with existing outside of those understandings means your very existence threatens the integrity of popular thought. Outsiders upset the applecart.
You’ve said Abdul-Rahman that your work relates more to a pre-9/11 time than your brother’s, and as such is more “nostalgic and spiritual”. Through re-creating moments of growing up within a Muslim faith and family – showing the rituals of the everyday and the sacred – do you hope to somehow ‘reclaim’ an identity which 9/11 and its aftermath has sought to dictate?
Abdul-Rahman: For me, the relationship that I have and have had with my Muslim identity wasn’t something that was imposed on me from the outside in the same way that it is now. I’ve experienced the change in how Muslims are perceived and it affects me on many levels – it makes me angry and it makes me sad, but I can’t let it change who I am. Through the work that I do I want to communicate a personal history that is just as valid and maybe just as problematic as anybody else here in Australia. This country is full of contradictions and issues that just don’t mesh with how we like to portray ourselves – Home and Away is not a documentary and there are other stories that need to be told. More than anything, right now I want to tell stories that explore my relationship with the idea of family from a warm and loving perspective. That’s my world and being a Muslim just happens to be a part of that world. I think that the idea of family is something that we all share – I hope that even the most obnoxious bigots love their mums.
You have also mentioned that your artworks ‘interact’ with each other across a generational divide. What are the fruits of this ‘dialogue’ that exists between your works?
Abdul-Rahman: I think it’s really important to acknowledge and discuss how events change our perceptions of ourselves and other people. Linking experiences across generational divides is fundamental to the idea of family; we need to never lose sight of the different ways we understand our surroundings at different stages in life and dealing with different societal pressures and priorities. That’s one of the great strengths of family: we gain so much understanding of the world through each other’s’ perspectives and that should be an equal exchange through children, parents, grandparents, siblings and even our ancestors. If we don’t try to understand the people around us and recognise how they change and grow then we can’t really understand ourselves. Families reflect each other on so many levels and I hope the work that my brother and I do over our lives will leave a record of that understanding.
The curator of the HERE&NOW16 / GenYM exhibition, Hamida Novakovich, has said that being Muslim is now almost a ‘political term’. Abdul-Rahman, you have also added to this, remarking that the Muslim identity as defined by the media and society carries with it associations which “have very little to do with you”. Can you expand on the implications of this?
Abdul-Rahman: What we see in the media and through television and entertainment on every level should never determine how we regard ourselves, but it sure does have a massive impact on how other people will regard us. When Muslims are discussed, and we’re being discussed consistently, it is nearly always in the context of extremism, violence and some sort of conflict. It would be great if people talked about Muslims in terms of the people they know who might just happen to be Muslim rather than throwing around catch-phrases like a show reel of bad guys. I can tell you with absolute assurance that the idea of violence and incompatibility with ‘western’ society has never been a part of my world or the world of any Muslim I know. It’s as simple as that. By and large violence is a global industry and we should be criticising every aspect of that. I think it’s easy to forget when people talk about Muslims it includes me, my family and many people I know and love. If somebody looks at me and my family and thinks of terrorism then the problem lies with them. I just can’t respect that mentality.
What are some of the stories you hope to tell with your artwork?
Abdul: Initially I thought it was important for me to demonstrate the diversity in the community and how the external perception of hegemony was inaccurate. But that is obvious to anyone who takes a moment to think about it. Now I am focused primarily on the experience of young Muslims living in the contemporary multicultural Australian context.
Currently, 70% of all refugees worldwide are Muslim. How do you think Australia’s prevailing xenophobia and Islamophobia are linked – particularly when it comes to the government’s bipartisan support of indefinite offshore detention?
Abdul: This requires a pretty substantial response, but basically there is a definitive history of powerful people vilifying and marginalising dispossessed and vulnerable people so they can continue to invade, exploit and suppress those people. Make them the bad guys and you have license to do what you want to them.
Abdul-Rahman: Every single Muslim country in the world has suffered under the effects of colonialism and the ongoing effects of post-colonial geo-politics and resource-driven conflicts. Here in Australia there is a belief that we don’t have a stake in the humanitarian cost of wars, although we like to raise our little flag and throw pebbles with the big kids, lest we forget and all that. The current refugee crisis is not a Muslim issue, it’s a humanitarian one and our government’s belligerent cruelty in the detention and torture of human beings seeking legal asylum is indefensible, immoral and will have long term costs to Australian society as a whole. We have a moral obligation to share the wealth and privilege of this country, a wealth and privilege that was stolen from the original occupants of this land in the first place. It’s the least we can do. It hurts us all to be complicit in the actions of our government and I think that talking about issues of Islamophobia and Xenophobia pale into insignificance when we’re talking about the detention, murder and torture of men, women and children whose only crime was to flee violence.
Recently we’ve had influential TV personalities such as Sonia Kruger – and afterwards endorsing her views, Kerri-Anne Kennerley – advocating for a ban on Muslims entering Australia. Pauline Hanson is even advocating for a royal commission into Islam itself, and a ban on new mosques. In what ways is this extremely prejudiced language impacting on an emotional and political level Muslim Australian communities?
Abdul: The Australian Muslim community is under siege. Sonia Kruger and Pauline Hanson feed the narrative. Being a Muslim in this country means you feel unwelcome and under threat.
Abdul-Rahman: Personally I’m very confused about why people like Sonia Kruger have a voice on political issues, I kind of thought that you needed at least a rudimentary understanding of what you’re talking about to be taken seriously. This goes back to the idea that Muslims are only talked about in negative terms, entirely forgetting that 23% of the world is included in these blanket statements. This is not a discussion – it leaves people like me with nowhere to go and it’s very difficult to believe that people actually feel threatened by a Muslim walking down the street. I understand the power of language and the broad appeal of these celebrity figures that influence public opinion but I don’t want to let it affect me. The worst part is that I have the privilege of not being particularly recognised as a Muslim man in public – the backlash, violence and vitriol is overwhelmingly felt by Muslim women and girls who are often more conspicuous. It’s amazing how brazen some people become when confronted with a woman in a scarf minding her own business. What we see on television is a grab for ratings that has a direct effect on what people experience on the street and that is unfortunately nothing new. One person’s advertising dollar is another person’s mum being spat on again. Thanks for that Sonia. I don’t even want to talk about Pauline Hanson.
What do you think are the most pressing challenges faced by young Muslim artists today, and how could these challenge be better addressed by the industry and/or government?
Abdul: Honestly in my experience the most pressing challenges faced by young Muslim artists today, apart from all the racist bullshit they have to put up with, are cultural ones. Muslim communities in Australia are largely migrant ones, and often as a result of conflicts overseas. Art and creative expression often isn’t a priority for communities who are working hard to establish a real sense of autonomy and agency. Making art is a privilege, and one that can quickly fall to the wayside when you’re burdened by a lot of other troubles.
Abdul-Rahman: The most pressing challenges facing young Muslim artists today are the same challenges being felt by the arts sector as a whole. The entire arts industry has been assaulted by some of the largest funding cuts ever seen in Australia in the last few years. The government is more than happy to subsidise fossil fuels and mining interests to the tune of billions of dollars yet the miniscule amount being spent on facilitating the cultural output of this country is seen as dispensable. This includes all of the arts from music, acting, dance, writing and visual arts; everyone from Gurrumul Yunupingu to Fiona Hall to Nicole Kidman have benefitted from a government supported system. We will feel the effects of this for a long time to come and while I would never equate this with our brutal policies towards asylum seekers, it’s a part of the same disregard for people with less power that seems to characterise our government at every turn.
Interview by Kate Prendergast