oil on board
270 × 270cm
Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased with funds provided by the MCA Foundation, 2016
The face of Sycorax looms out of the darkness, scrutinising the viewer with an expression that is wary and untrusting. Unlike his other images of masked, menacing and brooding faces, Abdul Abdullah’s portrait suggests a tension between openness and vulnerability, in which the gaze must be returned in equal measure – either accepting or rejecting the individual before us.
The title Sycorax refers to the background character in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, who is the mother of the half-human beast Caliban. Sycorax, already dead when the play’s action begins, is only ever spoken of by others and so exists as the projection of other characters’ memories and assumptions. As such, she functions in a manner not dissimilar to stereotypes of Muslim women in today’s media – effectively silent, and spoken of by others, rather than speaking for herself. In the play Sycorax was herself an Algerian woman, exiled to a distant island, and is thought by some academics to represent anxieties around Islamic influence during Shakespeare’s time. She is characterised in the play as a witch and sorceress – a purveyor of black magic whose claim to the island is countered by the white magic of the European interloper, Prospero. As in media portrayals of Muslim women, Prospero demonises Sycorax as deviant, projecting onto her his own prejudices and anxieties.
Abdullah’s portrait articulates his experience of growing up Muslim in the suburbs of Perth in a post-September 11 world, in which he went from feeling part of mainstream Australia to being excluded as one of the ‘bad guys’. Deeply affected by the politicisation of his identity through newsprint, radio and television stereotypes, Abdullah has challenged the bias, bigotry and prejudice which has become a feature of national discourse over the past 13 years. His work is a statement of his identity as both a Muslim and a seventh-generation Australian, and an invitation to people to reconsider their assumptions and expectations of what being Muslim and Australian might be.
People have this fear of people who have infiltrated our society, or walk amongst people within Australian society. I’m really interested in how people perceive us as monsters or as villainous people capable of violence and terrorism.
Abdul Abdullah, 2014
Abdul Abdullah talks identity, religion and belonging in this interview filmed for Primavera 2015. Nicole Foreshew, curator of Primavera 2015,recorded this interview during a research trip to Abdullah’s studio.
Born 1986, Perth. Lives and works Sydney.
Abdul Abdullah is a seventh-generation Australian Muslim whose work addresses the politicisation of Muslim identity within mainstream Australian culture. Working across portraiture, photography and painting, Abdullah uses his experience of growing up Muslim in the suburbs of Perth, and coming of age in a post-September 11 world, to expose the prejudices and stereotypes which have demonised and marginalised Muslim youth today.
Abdullah has been exhibiting since 2008. Selected solo exhibitions include I See a Darkness, Future Perfect, Singapore (2014); Homeland, Fehily Contemporary, Melbourne (2013); Mongrel, Fehily Contemporary, Melbourne (2012); and Them and Us, Kings Artist Run, Melbourne (2011).
Selected group exhibitions include Primavera, MCA, Sydney (2014); WA Focus: Abdul-Rahman Abdullah and Abdul Abdullah, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth (2015); Sealed Section, Artbank, Sydney (2014); Being Eurasian, Fremantle Arts Centre, Fremantle (2013); Beyond Likeness: Contemporary Portraits, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, University of Western Australia, Perth (2012); You Am I: An Exhibition of Contemporary Australian Muslim Artists, Hume Global Learning Centre, Melbourne (2011); Creative Culture, Australia on Collins, Melbourne (2010); KIDS, Moores Building Contemporary Art Gallery, Fremantle (2009); and Curtin Graduate Show, Curtin University, Perth (2008).
Abdullah’s work is included in numerous collections including the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA); the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Artbank, Sydney; University of Western Australia, Perth; Murdoch University, Perth; Islamic Museum of Australia, Melbourne; Campbelltown Arts Centre, NSW; and Bendigo Art Gallery, Victoria.Learn more