Fatima Killeen.
Fatima Killeen.
6 min read


Gallery: The Muslim Australian artists sharing their deeply personal works with the world

SBS News meets the winner of the Australian Muslim Artists Art Prize 2021, and some finalists, all of whom say they are moved to have been given a platform to share their creations.

Published Thursday 19 August 2021
By Fernanda Fain-Binda

When Fatima Killeen discovered she’d won the Australian Muslim Artists Art Prize 2021, it was too early to call her family in Morocco.

Killeen who has lived in Canberra since 1994, wins $10,000 for her work ‘The Crooked Narrative’, a blistering look at the misleading promise of peacekeepers in Islamic countries.

Fatima Killeen's The Crooked Narrative.
Source: Supplied/Fatima Killeen

She is the first female artist to win the competition, which is now in its third year, and the first artist to win such a large prize.

The prize was announced to the public on Thursday night. Its sponsor La Trobe University will acquire the artwork and all the shortlisted entries will soon be available to view online by anyone in Australia and around the world.

Fatima Killeen at work.
Source: Supplied/Fatima Killeen

“There’s a place to document people’s culture and promote social cohesion, through art,” says Moustafa Fahour, the founder and director of the Islamic Museum of Australia, which is in Thornbury, Melbourne.

The prize is open to any Australian artist whose work is influenced by Islamic art or Muslim identity.

There’s a place to document people’s culture and promote social cohesion, through art.

- Moustafa Fahour, Islamic Museum of Australia

“There’s a verse in the Qur’an that says, ‘we made you nations and tribes so that you might know each other,’” says Fahour. “You can be from different countries, you can have different backgrounds, but you’re also Australian, and you can have the Australian Muslim identity as well.”

Source: Supplied/Fatima Killeen

The Crooked Narrative, a collagraph print showing a fused pomegranate and hand grenade, is part of Killeen’s ongoing work on human rights, conflict, and migration.

The use of the pomegranate - considered to have sacred life-giving qualities - and the hand grenade against a traditional Islamic geometric tile pattern is, she says, important in understanding the lives of Muslims.

“There is beauty and a message in Islamic art. [We want] to make people aware of what is going on,” says Killeen.

There is beauty and a message in Islamic art.

- Fatima Killeen, Winning artist

The ‘misleading’ narrative of peacekeeping targets Muslim nations, causing bloodshed and environmental damage, she says.

“The Islamic nations are the ones suffering the most, living at the mercy of Western nations.” 

Work from the Australian Muslim Artists Art Prize on display.
Source: Supplied/Islamic Museum of Australia

Reflecting on this week’s events in Afghanistan she says, “After 20 years you would have achieved so much if you were really after peacekeeping in Afghanistan, Palestine, or Gaza.”

“Sometimes it’s very hard,” she says about the process of creating her work. “You stop in the middle and you fall apart.”

'I miss you too, habibi'

The other shortlisted artists are in with a chance of winning the People’s Choice award and $500, based on a public vote.

For Preston-based Lebanese-born Ayman Kaake, 34, his work ‘I miss you too, habibi’ - meaning ‘my love’ in Arabic - is inspired by his mother, Malak El Salloum.

Ayman Kaake and his work, ‘I miss you too, habibi’.
Source: Supplied/Ayman Kaake

A mother of 12, she always made Kaake feel special, he says, bringing back View-Masters - a device for seeing photographs and postcards - with holy images whenever she came back from Hajj.

“I came from Lebanon in 2011 to pursue my dream of doing visual art here in Australia, and I started making digitally manipulated images to speak about how I feel,” he says.

“I put self-portraits to show how I feel nostalgic and homesick, put them in a View-Master and sent them to my mum.”

Ayman Kaake's mother, the inspiration for his work.
Source: Supplied/Ayman Kaake

Kaake says he had previously felt pressure to train as an engineer to secure a good future.

“I lied. When I went to Beirut, I did cinematography, but I told my family that I was doing telecommunications engineering.”

But when his mother finally saw the photography her son was producing she was proud of him and touched. “She said to me on WhatsApp, ‘I miss you too, habibi.’”

“I am inspired by the stories my family told me, and then I draw on paper. Then, it’s kind of like engineering,” he says. “I end up taking maybe 100 photos and only one works.”

Source: Supplied/Ayman Kaake

“My mum is the inspiration of this work. She is a strong woman. That is what I want to give to people.”

'My dad first gave me a camera'

For 32-year-old Mysha Islam, who is originally from Bangladesh, the long Melbourne lockdown of 2020 gave her the opportunity to reconnect with photography.

Mysha Islam and her family.
Source: Supplied/Mysha Islam

A self-taught artist, she focused on her work as a primary school teacher and family life since migrating to Hampton Park in Victoria in 2013.

“It was my dad who first gave me a camera,” she says. “I have been so busy, as a first-generation migrant, everything was overwhelming. But with the pandemic, I took a break from life and was able to hold a camera and start again. It was like having my own space.”

Mysha Islam's family has become her art.
Source: Supplied/Mysha Islam

“As Muslims, I don’t think we have many platforms where we can portray ourselves as artists. But this exhibition has given me the courage to come out and show the world what I have created.”

Killeen’s winning work, and that of the other 16 other shortlisted artists, will be on show at the Islamic Museum of Australia online from Thursday night, and in-person whenever Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdown is lifted.

Source: Supplied/Mysha Islam

Displaying the work is important to winning artist Killeen.

“It feels like when you hold your friends by the shoulder and tell them what is going on. It feels like someone is listening to you,” she says.

Fatima Killeen in her studio.
Source: Supplied/Fatima Killeen

Financially, it helps too. 

“I haven’t had the chance to sell work for about two years since my last exhibition, and due to COVID. I can help my family with this,” she says.

In a few hours time, it will be time to call home to Agadir, Morocco, and start telling her family the good news.

View the online gallery at islamicmuseum.org.au

Fernanda Fain-Binda is a freelance writer based in Melbourne.

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