Feature story Jan/Feb 2021: Everything is true and it matters

The extraordinary works of Abdul-Rahman Abdullah will fill John Curtin Gallery in the largest survey of his work to date.

CHRIS MALCOLM, Director John Curtin Gallery, Curtin University

 Abdul-Rahman Abdullah in his studio. 

Events of the last year have forced communities of all scales – from isolated families through to nation states – to reappraise their own resources within the new paradigm of isolation. This new world of travel restrictions and diminished access to international shipping, has understandably impacted the 2021 Perth Festival, whose program intends to celebrate the local and home grown as a programming necessity. This enables us to focus on artists who live and work within our local community, and consider how they contribute to both the national and global cultural ecology.
As an exemplar of this intent, Everything Is True at the John Curtin Gallery provides a glimpse into a beguiling world, meticulously assembled from the memories, dreamscapes and spiritual imagination of Abdul-Rahman Abdullah – one of Australia’s most compelling contemporary artists. Abdullah creates objects which are familiar, yet strangely disturbing, seamlessly moving between planes of existence through the mercurial amalgam of lived experience and the distilled memories of cultural and familial history. Drawing on the narrative capacity of animal archetypes, crafted objects and the human presence, Abdullah aims to articulate physical dialogues between the natural world, identity and the agency of culture.
In developing Everything Is True, I have been privileged to visit the artist’s studio on the family’s farm in rural Mundijong, less than an hour’s drive south of Perth. The last time I visited in late 2020, something simple, yet extraordinary, occurred. Across a lifetime, there are moments which have such impact to be marked in one’s memory with enduring resonance – as to enable one’s future self the privilege of clear and total recall. What occurred that December day was so simple, yet magically beautiful, that its immediate resonance seemed perfectly tuned to one of the fundamental inspirations driving Abdullah to harness the extraordinary time and energy required to create his sculpture. On visiting his studio, an adjacent expanse of grass was littered with what I assumed to be a scattering of dead leaves. As I walked across the grass, to my astonishment, each of my steps triggered clutches of these ‘leaves’ to launch themselves upwards, fluttering awkwardly about me. These were not dead leaves, but a shade-seeking ramble of large Monarch butterflies. My delight at misreading living butterflies for a carpet of leaves seems fitting, as I now reflect on the transmutational powers through which Abdullah is able to not only embody his sculptures with spirit, but bring them to the very threshold of the living.
Without assistance, it is through the outrageously laborious process of physically carving away masses of wood that the artist bears witness through his own physical endeavour to the magic of material transformation. Abdullah speaks of carving wood as akin to drawing in space. These sculptural drawings are conducted in stages, from the initial laminating of dressed timber to generate the raw material form to be carved, all the way through to the final finishing processes applied by hand to each object’s finely detailed surface. The journey each of Abdullah’s sculptures takes is one of inexorable refinement – from a state full of the evidence of the artist’s hands to the final state of the object becoming simply apparent – where all traces of the artist’s hand disappear and the object thoroughly occupies its own state of being. Abdullah uses a range of instruments, from the initial broad terraforming chainsaw, through to increasingly refined implements, to the finishing brushwork applying pigment onto the finished surfaces. It is Abdullah’s uncanny ability to make materials transmogrify, through the mercurial blending of his formidable wood carving skills with a deeply spiritual imagination, which is the sustaining force permeating the long hours of intensive labour required to make ‘the materials lie.’ 
The exhibition’s title Everything Is True, subverts the phrase attributed to the medieval ascetic Islamic figure, Hassan-i Sabbāh (Hassan, son of Sabbah). A Nizari Ismailist missionary and leader of the often vilified Hashshashins (Order of Assassins) – renowned for their ruthlessly effective covert political assassinations – Hassan-i Sabbāh allegedly uttered “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” on his deathbed in 1124. By deliberately inverting this phrase, the artist asserts, with customary optimism, that “everything is real and it all matters.”
In partnership with Perth Festival, the John Curtin Gallery has been privileged to work with some of the most acclaimed contemporary artists from around the world over the last 20 years and I consider 2021 to be no different. Abdul-Rahman Abdullah joins that illustrious cohort of international artists who in recent years has included: Lisa Reihana, John Akomfrah, Candice Breitz, Angelica Mesiti and Ragnar Kjartansson. In 2021, the John Curtin Gallery’s vision is ‘to make tomorrow better through the power of art.’ I can think of no better way to demonstrate this commitment than through sharing the work of an artist with the vision, extraordinary skills and storytelling capacity of Abdul-Rahman Abdullah.
Everything is True by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah is on show at John Curtin Gallery from 5 February – 23 April.

 Among Monsters, 2017, stained wood, glass beads, 114.5 x 27 x 80cm, by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah. Image courtesy  Artbank and the artist.

 The Dogs, 2017, stained wood and chandeliers, dimensions variable, by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah. Installation view: PATAKA Art + Museum, Porirua New Zealand. Private Collection. Image courtesy the Artist and MOORE CONTEMPORARY.


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