For Abdul Abdullah, whose work now hangs in all of Australia’s major galleries, it all started with a monkey.

On one level there isn’t much controversial about this seventh-generation Australian. He grew up around art – his two elder brothers are artists – and going to art school was kind of like joining the family tradition.

The first painting he sold was of a monkey. And for the first part of his career he painted his friends – ‘pretty pictures of people around me’ – and he consciously avoided controversial or political messages in art.

That changed when he submitted a portrait of Waleed Aly to the Archibald prize. For reasons that are impossible to tell from the painting, Abdullah received a mountain of hate mail – seemingly just for having a Muslim name and daring to paint a thoughtful looking Muslim.
Initially the public retaliation upset Abdullah, but it ended up energising him and his practice. As a result, the fire sparked by hate has delivered countless famous images – including one of him with tattoo of the southern cross and star and crescent along with many images of monkeys. His work is now defiantly political.

‘It was not something that I went looking for, but something that visited me.’

Abdul’s latest work for Sydney Contemporary keeps a political theme – but retains the clownish imagery.

They show a series of explosions of missile tests. The explosions are terrifying but the rendering in bright oranges and reds is beautiful – painted to represent the a brain. Over the top though, Abdullah paints white line emojis or clownish monkey faces that take their head from the ‘brain’ of the explosion. The works are embedded with ideas that give something people can bite into, and eventually make a meal of.

‘What I’m trying to do is give multiple access points. At the heart of it, it’s quite serious. But that jokey image on top plays around with that confusing relationship we have sometimes with these quite abstract images but violent reality.’

If you’d like to see more of Abdul Abdullah’s enlightening work, be sure to check out the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair this month at Carriageworks.

Feature and article images via Alex Burgess.