Using art to explore misperceptions of Muslim identity

Using art to explore misperceptions of Muslim identity

Two brothers are using art to explore the theme of Muslim identity, pre and post the September 11 attacks.

(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)

How we identify who we are can be shaped by how others see us.

Two brothers - with a nine-year age difference - have been exploring that theme as it relates to their Islamic identity - pre and post the September 11 attacks.

Ryan Emery reports.

(Click on the audio tab above to hear the full report)

The wrong perception can breed alienation.

On the wall of the WA art gallery is one of many photographic pieces illustrating that.

A figure is wearing a Planet of the Apes mask, his head draped by an Arab scarf.

The eye is drawn to his black jumper with white Arabic writing on it.

At first glance, it's reminiscent of propaganda seen by IS and the effect of the mask is to make the figure seem sinister.

If you can read Arabic though - the writing says Salaam, an Arabic greeting of peace.

The artist behind the stylized self-portrait is 29-year-old Abdul Abdullah.

"The mask itself, I'm talking about the monstrification of the other. How marginalized people are perceived as villainous or monsters or somehow evil."

Then why is Abdul Abdullah deliberately provoking those thoughts in some observers with the IS-style writing?

"The white Arabic text on a black background is confusing for some people who confuse it with the way that kind of text has been used by IS and people are confronted by it. When I wear this jumper, people give me funny looks, but really it's a message of peace. It says peace on this jumper and it's all it says. "Reporter: It's almost like you're challenging their ignorance. Abdullah: Absolutely. All my work, the goal of it, is to challenge these misperceptions or perceptions, whatever you want to call it, but it's challenging, it's critiquing, and it's putting a mirror to people's biased views."

Abdul Abullah's work is on display at the WA Art Gallery with his older brother 37-year-old Abdul Rahman's.

Their joint exhibition is an examination of their Muslim identities pre and post 9-11 and how it affected them at different stages of their lives.

The exhibition's curator Robert Cook says he chose the pair's work because they make an impact.

"It's about what it is to live in the world at this point in time and have a particular perspective shaped by the culture that you come from and that you sit within. I think what's key about the brother's work is that they do this in a really accessible fashion. It's not highly conceptual. People get it straight away and so there's a direct engagement with people."

Older brother Abdul-Rahman Abdullah's work includes a sculpture of him as a nine-year-old boy and a print exploring the many meanings of the name Abdul using the images of terrorists, children and others taken off the internet.

For the 37-year-old, Muslim life in the suburban, working class suburb of Victoria Park, just outside Perth city, was about family, food, spiritualism, and culture when he was a child in the eighties and nineties.

There was racism, but he says it was directed at many migrants.

Although, ironically, he and his brother are seventh generation Australian.

"Very domestic in the home. It was a very spiritual relationship with this community. It was all based around eating, drinking, families and the home. Post 9-11 it became a much more externalised, politicised identity. All of a sudden we were seeing portrayals of ourselves in the media every day and up until today it hasn't lessened off at all at this stage."

While the shift happened during the older brother's early adulthood, it was during the formative teenage years of the younger.

"I know of only a few people who aren't affected by it personally. And often I see quite a bit of anger amongst myself and my friends about how we've been represented and how we are treated as human beings in this country."

The artists have also seen the fear and anger grow among some white Australians about perceptions of Islam.

How symbols of love for a country, like the Southern Cross tattoo, have been co-opted into symbols of division between some white Australians and anyone different.

Abdul Abdullah also has the Southern Cross tattoo, but with a twist.

"In 2011, I did a work called them and us featuring my brother and I, both shirtless in a photo. And for this particular photo, I got a tattoo on my ribs of the Southern Cross and crescent moon. An amalgamation of the Southern Cross, which has almost universally claimed by nationalists in this country, and the crescent moon and star, which is a signifier of Islam. I felt that it had to be a real tattoo looking at the way that the Southern Cross tattoo has been used by groups like in the Cronulla riots. How frequent it was as an image and how it's defining what people are and what people aren't. Like the idea of Aussie and Un-Australian and where you fit."

While the attitudes of some have partially affected the brother's view of themselves and their religion, their Australian sense of irony has not been misplaced.

"It just amazes me that somehow two per cent of the population is going to Islamicise the rest. There's a serious maths problem involved (laughter). We're going to have to get breeding.

"Yeah, white people reclaiming Australia. The irony."

"Yeah, slight irony."

The exhibition runs until late July at the WA Art Gallery.








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