Land Abounds

Set amongst the rolling hills and manicured hedges of the Southern Highlands, an extraordinary and unexpected trio of artists, Abdul and Abdul-Rahman Abdullah and Tracey Moffatt, offer a visual feast which brings drama and scale to Ngununggula in the exhibition Land Abounds.

The exhibition’s title, Land Abounds, hints at the many possibilities that a gathering of this calibre may reveal. I am told by curator Megan Monte that the exhibition is set around three themes which are based on Tracey Moffatt’s three videos, Love, 2003, Revolution, 2008, and Doomed, 2007. Monte has applied a curatorial rationale which frames a selection of new and old works by the Abdullah brothers, all of which respond to the immediate surrounds and speak to a myriad of social and political issues as described by Abdul-Rahman: “Reflecting on the land as an idea came from us. In this country we have a complicated relationship to the land, embodying a sense of entitlement that belies a history of violence. We are so defensive about ownership yet measure lifetimes by the acre. This was the starting point, and the work developed from that.”

Moffatt was chosen by the Abdullah brothers as the artist they both wished to work with for the exhibition, and they cite her as an inspiration to their own practice. Abdul-Rahman describes Moffatt as his “art hero”: “Tracey is an artist who has kicked down so many doors in this country and around the world. Artists like my brother and I owe her so much. She has been an art hero of mine since I was in school. I’d written essays about her long before I ever met her in person. When she speaks, the world listens.”

Abdul adds that working alongside Moffatt is a “real honour,” whilst stating the immense impact she has on his work. “Her work Other, [2009],” he says, “that I first saw in the Singapore Biennale in 2011, is just about my favourite work ever made.” Moffatt also offers her mutual admiration, noting that “I was happy to have my movie montages included in a major exhibition of the Abdullah brothers. I have admired them and their artworks so much. The strength and resilience both of the brothers must have had to show during their young lives growing up in Perth, Australia with the dreadful racism directed at them because of their Muslim faith must have matured them early.”   

Moffatt’s work requires no introduction, as an established and acclaimed artist. Her decision to accept the invitation to participate with the Abdullah brothers points to the way in which artists can shape each other’s careers, or indeed reimagine their own work. Her contribution to the exhibition involved revisiting three videos that are more than a decade old. Moffatt’s ethereal, yet frenetic montages evoke both a sense of romanticism and nostalgia, whilst allowing space for new conversations to emerge. The video montages act as a type of malleable creative offering, with the videos providing a unique frame and tone for the Abdullah brothers. Moffatt says: “It is very thrilling for me to see my and collaborator Gary Hillberg’s video works presented in new ways – I gave instructions to the curator, Megan, that I didn’t care if the brothers treated the video works like wallpaper and projected them mute onto the ceiling. Like with most of my past artworks, I wash my hands of them. I never feel attached, and I drift onto my next idea.”

Location and sense of place greatly inform the new works produced by the Abdullah brothers. Ngununggula is situated in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, an area known for its “old money” and the hyper-presence of generational Whiteness. This environment in many ways is polarising, holding both beauty and violence: beauty in the majesty of the landscape and violence in its colonial history. Drawing on this, Abdul-Rahman speaks to the inherent “violence of ownership” in his beautifully crafted sculpture Horse, 2022. This is thoroughbred country, a place where wealth manifests itself in a multitude of sweeping multimillion-dollar properties and prized equestrian pursuits. For Abdul-Rahman, it is important that his life-sized installation remains an ambiguous scene. For the audience, it is unclear whether this majestic creature is sleeping or dead. Abdul-Rahman is questioning the notion of the ultimate form of ownership, that being the ownership of a life. The thoroughbred horse is either maintained at great cost and celebrated – or destroyed. This is not so much a commentary directed at the surrounding communities; rather, it can be viewed as a broader statement about power and privilege. 

Abdul-Rahman’s work, The Dogs, 2017, also appears in the exhibition. The work is a stunning installation featuring “running” black dogs set dramatically under several twinkling chandeliers, which brings to life the artist’s vivid materialisation of a fraught childhood memory in his unique way. Moffatt has praised Abdul-Rahman’s ability to work “confidently with materials” and in the way he introduces “surrealist elements” to his work. 

Amidst the romanticisation and gentrification of the Australian landscape, Abdul skilfully replicates the centuries-old tradition of landscape painting, describing himself as having “a tangential relationship” to it and an interest in the “political contexts of the landscape in art.” This includes Abdul’s exploration into the history of Australian landscape painting and “how it has shaped the national identity.” Abdul delivers the surrounding landscape of the Southern Highlands on a grand scale, through the production of an epic ten-by-two-metre canvas which features his trademark overpainting, seeing Abdul “vandalise” his own works as a final step in the process. Moffatt speaks of Abdul’s skill and use of scale as a portrait painter – a skill that is readily transferred to his landscapes, which also hold the same intensity and painterly qualities. “The younger brother, Abdul Abdullah,” she notes, “really does know how to paint. His portraits lately look like they are coming out of a muddy gloom. I have a card of his portrait of footballer Robbie Farah on my fridge, it is absolutely monumental, and the real-life painting stands over six feet high.”

The Abdullah brothers have once again harnessed their adept visual language to interrogate the complexities of our contemporary moment. And with Moffatt at the helm, this presents as an essential exhibition that reaches backwards and forwards to deliver criticality and beauty in equal measure. Moffatt offers one final piece of wisdom about the power of contemporary art: “Art can disrupt anywhere at any time. I am certain that the creators and instigators of the new Ngununggula gallery are extremely aware of this – and by the way, I applaud their efforts in fundraising and overseeing its construction, the building does look very beautiful. What artists like Abdul and Abdul Rahman Abdullah will do is bring in their edgy talent and reality and smash up the tea party.”   

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 59, 2022.
Images courtesy the artists, Ngununggula, New South Wales, and Roslyn Oxkey9 Gallery, Sydney.

Land Abounds
28 May – 24 July 2022
Ngununggula, New South Wales

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