Reviews/Perth Festival/Visual Art

But nothing is as it seems

1 March 2021

The startlingly realistic sculptures and installations by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah in ‘Everything Is True’ issue a challenge to apply our own versions of the truth to them, Craig McKeough writes.

‘Everything Is True’, Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, Perth Festival ·
John Curtin Gallery, 27 February, 2021 ·

From the promotional material for “Everything Is True”, it is apparent that Perth-based artist Abdul-Rahman Abdullah is a highly skilled wood carver, capable of caressing a lifeless lump of wood into a thing of exquisite life and beauty.

But this collection is about much more than the aesthetic.

Abdullah takes the familiar – the concept of animals as totems or symbols of the things in life we know and trust – and he subverts it. He exaggerates, takes things out of context and turns questions back on us as viewers.

His finely carved sculptures draw us in as we look for ways to connect. His animals, in particular, have immediate appeal as recognisable forms, but all is not as it seems. For example, a key work here, The Dogs, with three large-as-life rampaging dogs, teeth bared, suggests a threat. But they are caught, suspended in mid-stride beneath the soft and gorgeous light from a large array of elegant chandeliers.

What are we to make of this seemingly contradictory scene? Even the exhibition title, “Everything Is True”, invites us to question what is going on. The name is inspired by a quote attributed to an 11th century Islamic mystical figure, Hassan-I Sabbah: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”. Abdullah reverses that initial assertion, but still gives us permission to attach our own reality or truth to these works of art.

For Abdullah, they are embedded with memory, stories of family, childhood and culture. But we all bring our own memories and stories with us and can’t help but apply our own form of truth. Yes, everything is true. But not everything is true for everyone.

The works on display here span the years since Abdullah graduated from Curtin University with a bachelor of arts degree in 2012. Among the earliest is a resin dinosaur figure which gives its name to the exhibition. It is highly detailed and skilfully executed, however it presents more as a curiosity than a statement. It serves a valuable purpose as a contrast to more recent works that demonstrate how the artist has grown in confidence and is increasingly willing to inject himself into his work with ambitious art that is layered with meaning.

Abdullah plays with expectations in the way his works are presented, making familiar features such as doorways, tables and light fittings integral to the display. As we move through the exhibition there are playful figures of dogs and cats paired with rugs, chandeliers and mirrors; snakes; a giant spider that dwarfs an adjacent door frame; and an extraordinary wood-carved water buffalo half submerged in a hand-knotted woollen carpet.

‘Pretty Beach’, by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah. Photo supplied.

And then suddenly, any sense of playful whimsy is shattered as we walk through a doorway into a slaughterhouse – lit with glaring fluorescent tubes – to find three headless sheep carcasses hanging from chains and gambrels. This silicone work, In the Name, is so shockingly lifelike that it feels like some sort of protest.

But perhaps it’s more likely to be a nod to Abdullah’s childhood memories, as is the nearby and slightly less confronting I have been assured you will go to heaven, my friend (a kind of prequel to the dangling carcasses). Muslims’ need to eat only meat that has been killed according to halal practice meant that in years past many families slaughtered their own animals, and the sight of a sheep carcass may not have been unusual for Abdullah.

Some works need context to reveal their full power and meaning, and it is pleasing that the backstory to the extraordinary installation piece, Pretty Beach, is on the gallery wall (even if you do need your phone torch to read the plate in the darkened room). This is a work of extraordinary beauty, with sinuous wood-carved stingrays swirling below shimmering curtains of chain and Swarovski crystals. But the story behind it, of Abdullah’s childhood recollections of precious time with his grandfather and the tragedy that ensued, is heart-wrenchingly sad and forms a presence that hangs over the whole exhibition.

It is worth visiting the John Curtin Gallery to see this work alone. But taken as a whole, “Everything Is True” is an enthralling snapshot of an artist with much to tell us and the rare skill to present work that makes us question our own version of the truth.

“Everything Is True” continues at John Curtin Gallery until 23 April, 2021.

Pictured top: ‘The Dogs’, by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah. Photo supplied.

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Author —
Craig McKeough

Craig McKeough is a writer and visual artist, with a lifetime’s experience in journalism, covering everything from the arts to horse racing, politics and agriculture. Craig has always been drawn to the swing; an egalitarian, grounding piece of equipment where you can go as high and wild as you want, but you’ll always return to where you started.

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