An artist from Perth, Abdul Abdullah is currently based in Sydney. Abdul’s work spans many disciplines of art; including painting, photography, video installation and performance. His work focuses on the subject and experience of ‘the other’ in society. Abdul describes himself as an ‘outsider amongst outsiders’. Regularly touted as an artist to keep an eye on, Abdul Abdullah’s projects have always engaged with different marginalised minority groups, with a particular focus on the experience of young Muslims in a contemporary multicultural Australian context. Abdul has also given a fantastic TED talk for TEDxSydney, entitled ‘Don’t Call Me Aussie: Combating Prejudice With Art’. I really enjoyed interviewing Abdul Abdullah, and I think people will really enjoy reading it. Please enjoy…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
Weirdly I rarely tell people I’m an artist. Usually I say I paint pictures or make photographs. If they really quiz me then I’ll tell them I’m an artist, and fend off the ‘not make money until you’re dead’ joke, by saying it’s the best possible way to spend your day. Generally though (and perhaps arrogantly), I think in Australia if you’re really into contemporary art, it’s likely you would have come across my work before. Australia has a lively, but relatively small arts community.
I have just finished The Undisputed Truth by Mike Tyson, and am about to start Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky by Noam Chomsky.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
While I can confidently say that I read pretty much every Goosebumps book published before 1998, the book that had the greatest impression on me was The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. It was probably because it also had a great impression on my older brother Abdul-Rahman, and I wanted to do everything that he did, which led to me to taking up boxing, and eventually pursuing art.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Before going to high school I had thought that I was going to be a lawyer, and during high school I didn’t give much thought to anything. I didn’t decide on being an artist until two years into a journalism degree.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
I’ve joked in the past that a 15 year old me would slap the 20 year old version in the face, but think the present 30 year old version was ok.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
This is a really hard question. The sports almanac like Marty Mcfly. Haha. Honestly, I don’t think there was one book that would have made much difference at the time. I was going to do what I did regardless of what anyone else said. Perhaps The Autobiography of Malcom X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
My reading doesn’t have a routine. I fit it in wherever and whenever I can. I’ll binge one week and not read at all the next. One rule that I have set for myself is that I no longer watch movies on planes. I have to fly a lot for shows, or across Australia to Perth to visit family, so I put that time aside to read.
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Taleb made a big impact on how I have approached my professional practice. It appealed to my maths-orientated brain. While most of the examples were drawn from the author’s experience in the financial industries, I found it was really applicable to the art world.
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
The book People Like Us: How arrogance is dividing Islam and the West by Waleed Aly was a book that was really formative to the way I view the world. My father gave me a copy when I moved to Melbourne and was feeling a little bit lost. I read the book from front to back without putting it down, and when I finished I read it again. I think Waleed is one of Australia’s best thinkers, and I’m indebted to my father for giving me the book.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
I have found myself recommending Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond to a lot of people I know. This book is so good at dismantling misperceptions. For example in Australia there is a lot of racism directed at Aboriginal people, and much of that is based on pseudo-scientific justifications instigated and maintained by a colonial mentality. For anyone who needs to read a book to understand the historical circumstances that led to a technological disparity between White settlers and Aboriginal people, this is the book for you.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
I love fiction, but these days I feel guilty reading it. It has to be recommended to me by someone I trust. I only read fiction to reward myself. It’s the same reason I listen to less and less music and more and more podcasts and audiobooks. If I’m not absorbing new information, selfishly I feel like I am wasting time.
Do you think reading is important?
I think reading is really important, and I really worry about kids who don’t read. Having access to the world of literature is literally having access to the world. I’m not going to pretend I am particularly devout when it comes to religion, but I am a Muslim, and the first thing God said to the prophet Muhammad (SAW) was: “read”! Perhaps if people read a little more, there would be more empathy in the world.
The best book I’ve read recently was The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan. It was such a broad account of world history, but was far less Eurocentric than most histories I’ve read or been taught.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
I would have to say real books, because I have never read a digital book. I have friends who swear by kindle, but I like having something in my hand. My books are like trophies, and I take them with me wherever I move.
Name a book that you feel every human should have to read by law.
I couldn’t possibly think of a book that everybody in the world should read, but in Australia I think every high school student should study The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding by Robert Hughes. I think we are done a disservice in our education when we are taught the romanticised, mythologized version of Australian history. Our true history was brutal, and the scars of colonisation are not healed. People in Australia should also read The Australian Frontier Wars by John Connor, Blood on the Wattle by Bruce Elder and 1788: The Brutal Truth of the First Fleet by David Hill.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life?
I’ve already mentioned it but People Like Us: How arrogance is dividing Islam and the West by Waleed Aly was a book that made the most impact. It introduced me to a way of thinking that defined my context. Reading this book I began to understand where I fit in the world, and what paths of enquiry I should really pursue.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
Yeah totally. Just about my favourite fiction books are The Journeyer and Aztec by Gary Jennings. I haven’t read them in a long time so I don’t know how they’ll hold up now. Also the Akira series by Katsuhiro Otomo. As a work of art, and as a piece of literature, for me it is near perfect. As far as non-fiction goes, anything by Karen Armstrong. My favourite of hers is Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
This year I will continue my research into the history of colonisation and its on going effects. I am also very interested in geo-politics and the historical and political contexts for current and potential military conflicts.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
When I was younger I wrote what could be seen as the beginnings of an autobiography and it was called ‘Wrecking ball’. This was a few years before the Miley Cyrus song. I really liked the title, and I think I’d still use it.