The ‘Coming to terms’ series is Abdul Abdullah’s most recent reply to the present mistrust directed towards Muslims in Australia. Featured in APT8, and selected by QAGOMA’s new Future Collective as their first contribution to the Gallery’s Collection, these five photographs repurpose the palatable tropes of traditional wedding photography to convey complex intercultural narratives, with the bride and groom donning balaclavas — a visual synonym for criminality and its threats.
Born in Perth a seventh-generation Australian, Abdul Abdullah’s earliest forebear reached these shores from England in 1815. His mother is a first generation migrant — a Bugis Malay woman from Malaysia — and his father, a prominent community figure, converted to Islam in 1971. As a child, Abdullah often stood distinct from the Australian ‘norm’, but at the formative age of 14, the events of 11 September 2001 recast his relationship with this country. He, his family and others like him became subject to a new dimension of hate-filled aggression, violence and intimidation. The artist comments:
Australia is one of the best places in the world to live. But growing up a Muslim in this country — you get used to seeing Muslims portrayed negatively in the media. In the popular imagination . . . you are the bad guy. You start to feel the divide of them and us’.1
Abdullah’s familiarity with this pervasive cultural prejudice has informed his most significant recent works.
The wedding (Conspiracy to commit) — the largest of the works in the series — depicts a young couple in contemporary wedding costumes that bear the vivid colour and fine embellishment of Islamic culture. They sit within a fantasy-themed scene of flowing curtains and mounds of green and white flowers, a playful exuberance common in wedding photography studios in Malaysia, where the photo was taken. Yet their expressions of happiness are substituted with rigid postures. Here, Abdullah reflects the inflammatory projections of a select political discourse and the slurry of media depictions, demonstrating something of the corruption of character through language in this take on ‘commitment’. Groom II (Stratagem) and Bride II (Subterfuge) function the same way, with these related works setting each figure alone against an infinite black background with dramatic studio lighting. Emerging from the shadows, their union is seen as a construction, an elaborate plot to distract from the alleged nature of their actions.
Another pair of figures set against perfect black — Bride I (Victoria) and Groom I (Zofloya) — are different again, touching on the historical vilification of Muslims in Western cultures through a reference to the nineteenth-century gothic novel Zofloya; or, The Moor, penned by Charlotte Dacre. The tale is brimming with acts of scheming, neglect, adultery and abandonment, which cumulatively poison the characters and their relationships. As the story goes, Victoria confides her sense of guilt in Zofloya after her deceptions end in the misery and suicide of other characters. At this moment, Zofloya is inspired to reveal his true identity to Victoria: he is Satan, her corrupter and destroyer. This intricate tale is conceivably representative of the xenophobia of its era, and in this new context, suggests a sustained mistrust of and bigotry towards Muslims.
The absurd notion that a wedding, a time of joy, should be misappropriated by evil, responds succinctly to the current conflation of Islam and terrorism. Engaging with representations of difference by presenting imagery in which contradictory symbols coexist, Abdullah draws attention to inconsistent attitudes and instances of mainstream cultural bias. The series’ title, ‘Coming to terms’, perhaps reflects the artist’s attempt to come to terms with the marginalisation he has experienced living in post-9/11 Australia; it could also imply a proxy attempt to draft ‘terms’ of understanding and awareness that might resolve this recent period of discord.
Through these striking works, Abdul Abdullah facilitates more thoughtful reflection and dialogue, encouraging viewers to engage with the subject critically, and to challenge the ways in which Muslim people continue to be unfairly represented and perceived.
1 Rod Pattenden, ‘Atheist critic blind to current religious symbols’, in Eureka Street, vol.21, no.19, 4 October 2011, www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=28496#, accessed 16 October 2015.
Peter McKay is Curator, Contemporary Australian Art, QAGOMA