Abdul Abdullah's artwork, which was removed from Artspace Mackay amid controversy.
Abdul Abdullah's artwork, which was removed from Artspace Mackay amid controversy.

ARTIST SPEAKS OUT: The other side to ‘offensive’ art boycott

THE artist at the centre of a national debate about art, our armed forces, free speech and what it means to be Australian has spoken out.

Sydney artist Abdul Abdullah's works were pulled from the walls of Artspace Mackay amid criticism from Mackay RSL, Dawson MP George Christensen and Councillor Martin Bella who claimed soldier's faces had been defaced with "clown faces".

But Mr Abdullah said the politicians had taken his work out of context and intentionally propagated that misinterpretation for political gain.

He also said there was "hypocrisy" involved in free-speech advocate Mr Christensen demanding the works be pulled.

Artist Abdul Abdullah claims his work was taken out of context.
Artist Abdul Abdullah claims his work was taken out of context.

Mr Abdullah is an Australian who can trace his family tree back to the nation's convict settlement.

His family has served in the Australian, British and Malay armed forces.

Mr Abdullah said his art was not critical of the nation's soldiers, rather the actions of the Government that sent soldiers to war.

"I certainly don't think they are insulting or provocative," he said.

"(The works) are talking to the struggle our soldiers experience … the brave face they have to put on when there are dealing with the experiences they have at war.

"It is absolutely not a clown face."

The works are part of a larger body of work that explores the difference between lived reality, what we perceive and what we project.

"The reference from that smiley face is an emoji and how we use emoji to communicate," he said.

Also included in the series are images of Mr Abdullah's friends and family, which are also superimposed with the emoji.

Archibald Prize (2011) finalist Abdul Abdullah is the recipient of the inaugural $15,000 Australian Muslim Artists Art Prize 2019. He is pictured with his work “You can call me troublesome”. Picture: Islamic Museum Australia Thornbury
Archibald Prize (2011) finalist Abdul Abdullah is the recipient of the inaugural $15,000 Australian Muslim Artists Art Prize 2019. He is pictured with his work “You can call me troublesome”. Picture: Islamic Museum Australia Thornbury

"The work is talking about empathy," he said.

"I think they (Mr Christensen and Cr Bella) misunderstood the interpretation and propagated that misinterpretation, which I think is more harmful."

Mr Abdullah said the public's reaction to the work in Mackay was so heated that he, gallery staff and Mayor Greg Williamson were the target of hate mail.

A large portion of the hate mail directed at Mr Abdullah related to his name.

"(The art) seems to trigger in people a reaction that a person with a name like mine is not allowed to participate in the conversation," he said.

"There is a certain amount of hypocrisy, (Mr Christensen) claims to be free speech advocate."

"It means freedom for them to say what they like."

A spokeswoman for Mr Christensen said it was not the politician's views that got the artworks removed from display.

"It was the views and stance of the RSL … not George's," she said. "He stood up for the views of his constituents.

"George's objection was not to the artist's right to express himself, but rather to Government funding the exhibition."



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