In recent months, hundreds of young Muslim men from Western countries are said to have joined the rebel group ISIL to fight in Iraq and Syria.
ISIL has released a recruitment video featuring young British and Australian men, calling on their fellow countrymen to join them in jihad. A number of educated Muslims living in the West have became radicalised on their home turf, perhaps turning to their religion to feel a sense of purpose.
One young Muslim Australian knows all too well what it’s like growing up and feeling marginalised because of his religious identity. “I have always felt like an outsider among outsiders,” says Abdul Abdullah.
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“When I was in high school, I told my friends that if I didn’t find something that I loved by the time I was 27, I would find a war and die fighting in it. But I grew out of that desire to go out and do something about it.”
Instead, he chose art.
At a time when Australia is sending back asylum seekers attempting to reach its shores, Abdullah is challenging the country’s attitude towards its many migrants.
The award-winning 28-year-old is of mixed Australian-Malay heritage. He says he uses his work to challenge the prejudice he faces as a brown-skinned Muslim – although some of his ancestors have lived in Australia for 200 years.
One of Abdullah’s ancestors was a British convict who arrived in Australia in 1815, having stolen two stamps and a watch chain in London. His mother is Malay and his father converted to Islam in 1972, adopted an Arabic name and raised Abdullah as a Muslim. He grew up in Perth with three older siblings.
‘Art as provocation’
His striking paintings, photographs and installations explore themes of belonging and alienation to give a voice to disenfranchised and disillusioned youth. Abdullah applies visual cues from popular culture and takes inspiration from civil unrest, like the London riots and the Arab Spring, in his body of work.
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“Those are key events that inspired me to produce these responsive works. In Australia there is a segment of society that doesn’t accept … [the] brown, Muslim minority. I’m using my art as a provocation of white Australia that doesn’t like us,” he says, adding that he has received hate mail in response to his controversial works.
His “Siege” series, seen in the slideshow above, reflects a state of mind in which an individual feels forever under attack. “You see monsters” features Abdullah dressed in traditional Muslim garb with a mask referencing the film Planet of the Apes, representing “the other” as a “sub-human” species.
Abdullah believes this affliction is shared by many minorities and marginalised groups, particularly young Muslims living in Western societies.
After the September 11 attacks, Abdullah says things changed. “Our Muslim identities became politicised. As kids we all felt it. On the news and in the paper, people with names like ours, and who looked like us, were called terrorists and straight evil.”
He became aware at a young age of the fact that the rules and obligations of Islam existed in his home, but in few other places in Australian society. “So you were thrown out somewhat unprepared when you entered broader society.”
A unique perspective
It was at university where Abdullah fell in love with art.
Ted Snell, one of Abdullah’s professors at the University of Western Australia, says his former student has always taken a unique perspective: “He embraced portraiture as a modus operandi and worked diligently to create a powerful body of work that showed maturity and accomplishment.”
I understand humility is a key Islamic practice. Thinking you are a better human being than anybody else because you believe you have a better understanding of life or God's will is the opposite of this.
“The young man with the Muslim name and swarthy complexion had been constructed as ‘other’ by contemporary Australian society, yet he proudly presents his Southern Cross tattoo with the Islamic crescent moon to challenge the nationalist adoption of the flag as a symbol of racism and exclusion.”
Leslie Morgan, in a chapter dedicated to Abdullah’s work in his book Reimagining the City: Art, Globalization, and Urban Spaces, has written that the artist “often subverts the stereotypical ideas of what Muslims look like”.
Abdullah is the youngest artist to have been short-listed twice for one of Australia’s most prestigious art awards, the Archibald Prize.
His portrait of Australian-Egyptian broadcaster and writer Waleed Aly takes pride of place at the Islamic Museum of Australia in Melbourne. Its art director, Nur Shkembi, says: “Abdul’s work holds no punches; he is unapologetic in his critique of the racist element in society. There is also a great articulation and clarity in his work, which has the ability to reach people through the nuanced and deeply personal in which it is delivered.”
Yassir Morsi is a research fellow at the International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding at the University of South Australia. “What is interesting in Abdullah’s work is the question of what it means to see the Muslim as seen by the non-Muslim,” he comments. “Australia is heavily involved [symbolically] with the ‘War on Terror’ narrative. In this sense, the anger here of being discriminated against is also a result of feeling that politically we are discriminated against.”
‘Humility is key’
Asked about the headlines describing young men joining jihadist groups, Abdullah says, “I can understand the Islamic history of the mujahedin and the romantic history of it. I realise we are fighting a huge uphill battle, and we have for a long time, but you can only preach tolerance.
“I understand humility is a key Islamic practice. Thinking you are a better human being than anybody else because you believe you have a better understanding of life or God’s will is the opposite of this.”
While Abdullah’s curiosity about politics and discrimination are what drive him as an artist, he also remains optimistic about “making a difference”.
“I want my art to build bridges, and part of building my platform is growing my audience for that reason. The more I develop as an artist, I think [the] better bridges I can build.
“I want my art to demand my audience to give people a bit of time and be a little more patient – less dehumanising of the ‘other’ and less vilifying of what they don’t know. Just because you don’t know them doesn’t mean they are evil.”
Follow Rudabah Abbass on Twitter: @DABS13