Time and light weave together the diverse elements of ‘Waqt al-tagheer: Time of change’, the first major exhibition by Muslim Australian art collective, eleven. Curated by Abdul- Rahman Abdullah and Nur Shkembi at ACE Open as part of the Adelaide Festival, the exhibition presents a multifaceted exploration of what it means to make art as a Muslim in contemporary Australia.
In his self-portrait Journey to the West (2017) Abdul Abdullah sits in topless repose, holding a fan of plush royal red, atop a dais of the same colour. The scene is meticulously formal, set against a deep black and adorned throughout with gilded ornament. Flowing golden curtains frame the artist, who looks towards the ceiling with the face of an intelligent ape. The mask (from The Planet of the Apes) is a recurring trope in Abdullah’s work, invoking unironic otherness rather than pure intertextual referentiality. Although its treatment of power is still unapologetic, Journey to the West breaks the confrontational gaze of his previous work, stepping the viewer back to a wide shot and offering complicity.
Adjacent to Journey to the West glows Abdullah M. I. Syed’s Aura II (2012), a moon radiating white light from within a skin of hand-stitched white crocheted prayer caps. The glowing hexagonal tessellations indicates the mathematical and the divine within the connectedness of its materials.
In the main room, a pair of horned and bearded devils with glowing halos burn in an ochre red inferno beneath a golden bough of eucalyptus. Khadim Ali’s tapestry The Arrivals #1 (2016) depicts the demonisation of displaced souls on the stage of a globalised theatre of the absurd.
Hoda Afshar’s photographic series Under Western Eyes (2013-14) applies a pop-art rendering of Muslim femininity caught in the patriarchal gaze of Eurocentrism. Among the figures represented, a Monroe-esque woman with arabic script spiralling into her face chomps on her chador and points a gun to her temple, while a Kahlo-inspired figure haloed by arabic writing wears a Minnie Mouse chador. The feminine subjects are discombobulated by an absurd lens, alive with humour and irony.
In 500 Books (2018) by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, a carved wooden cube of meticulously stacked books stands centrally, mostly concealed by a white wooden sheet. The sculpture is an artifact from the artist’s memory of childhood, existing heavily, warmly; radiating feelings of intergenerational consciousness.
Also borne from early recollections, Zeina Iaali’s sculptural series Sweetly Moulded (2012) layers ornately cut, reflective perspex to fashion reconstructed Ma’amoul biscuit moulds, iteratively cropping the viewer’s reflection to eventually reveal a female figure, a love heart, a queen, a pomegranate and a strawberry. A core of innocence is revealed within an infinitude of subjectivity, recursively present within the material forms of tradition and gender.
Khaled Sabsabi’s technoscience-flavoured installation At the Speed of Light (2016) comprises a 218 hour-long video, shown at 11 incrementally faster speeds – the final one-second video approximating the speed of light. Arranged circularly on the floor, the 11 monitors flash and thrum at various velocities. Twenty-five film stills are enshrined on photographic paper and gold leaf, conjuring shallow pools reflecting the sky on a beach of golden sand.
As black metal guitars grind softly, a cage of neon green demarcates Safdar Ahmed’s virtual reality piece, The Subjective Xenophobe (2018). A tongue of fire-lightning burns across the digital space as three zombie warrior avatars of the artist engage in a magical, gory malee. A fourth avatar, human, lies injured, horrified. Scattered around are enchanted artifacts, including a haunted map of Australia and an infested Royal Coat of Arms, glowing and sizzling with fantastic power. The Mortal Kombat-esque scene leverages the uncanny verisimilitude of its medium to explore relationships between the clash of civilisations and zombie apocalypse tropes.
In large text on the back wall, Eugenia Flynn’s With my sister (2018) recounts a sacred bond, a secret. Rather than confide and connect, the poem confronts us with the borders of a spiritual inner space that safeguards the indeterminacy of a vitalised relationship between the self and the exterior world.
Noiselessly casting geometric shadows on the floor and three walls that surround it, Shireen Taweel’s musallah (2017) is suspended off the ground, disengaging the audience from accessing its circumferential space. The finely worked copper is an homage to the early Afghan camel drivers who built, in Broken Hill, what is now the oldest Mosque in Australia; a sacred refuge from the turbulent and unfamiliar.
By examining defining moments in time, the artists in ‘Waqt al-tagheer: Time of change’ ultimately reveal the vicissitudes of the Muslim Australian experience, offering new ways of seeing through the populist narrative that has impoverished our country’s cultural diversity.
Thomas Capogreco is an Adelaide-based arts writer.
Until 21 April, 2018|