Abdul Rahman Abdullah
Everything is True
How close can you get to a painting in a museum that’s not open to visitors? Is it possible to see an exhibition in a city you can’t travel to? What is the best way to experience art from a lockdown? It has been over a year of closed venues, online viewing rooms, and limited travel. Before the pandemic, we all consumed some art in reproduction, in print, on Instagram, and via other web-based platforms. It was never possible to see every exhibition, to go everywhere; then suddenly it wasn’t possible to go anywhere. New efforts were made to close the gaps our bodies weren’t permitted to navigate, to convert art experience to something that could be accomplished remotely.
As the world grinds forward, museums and galleries reopen and more and more flights are being booked. But we will continue to look at art online, to scroll through Instagram, “liking” what we see or swiping it away. Even when we are all able to look at art in person, the virtual infrastructure and our habits will remain. It’s a good moment to ask ourselves this question: what is the best way to connect with art we cannot get to physically–with our entire bodies–but only visually and through our screens? I have been thinking about this as I look at the work of three artists: Abdul Rahman Abdullah in Boorloo/Perth, Australia; Katarina Janeckova Walshe in Corpus Christie, Texas; and Carmine Cartolano (Qarm Qart) in Cairo, Egypt. My exchanges with these artists helped me figure out how to look at art on a screen for the best possible experience. Here it is:
- Look at an artwork (or, the representation of it) deliberately. Pause before you swipe or click. Give it time and attention and be curious about what is there.
- Ask yourself what it would feel like physically to be in front of the artwork. Scale, texture, as well as the sound, smell, and the feel of the space around an artwork, have been filtered out when we look at art on a screen. Viewing artwork from our desks or on our phones, the experience tends to be mostly cerebral rather than physical. An awareness of what is missing allows some of that sensory information to be activated by memory and imagination.
- Remember that art is both personal and universal. Art is the dream of the artist made visible and tangible, a dream the viewer is invited to enter. Even when we cannot meet in the physical space of art, we can lean into the dream space—or virtual space of it.
A stingray led me to the work of Abdul Rahman Abdullah. I was writing about stingrays in art and found an image online of his installation of painted wooden stingrays. I reached out to the artist for a comment about the piece titled Pretty Beach, and we arranged to have a quick Zoom call. We ended up speaking for an hour, and in that hour I learned that Abdullah was preparing for his largest-to-date solo exhibition, titled Everything is True at John Curtin Gallery in Boorloo/Perth. The show would include twenty-five sculptural installations and would be part of the Perth Festival, which usually draws international traffic. However, this year Australia’s borders were closed due to the pandemic. I decided then, during our first Zoom call, that I would make an effort to experience the exhibition in Boorloo/Perth from my own lockdown in New Orleans.
Abdul Rahman Abdullah’s artwork largely consists of sculptures and installations. Many include carved and painted wooden animals, life-sized and realistic. His works are quiet and lyrical. They all share a dream-like quality, solid but also ethereal, realistic, but strange. Exhibition photographs can successfully document artwork, and the photographs documenting Everything is True are beautifully shot, but I realized that seeing only still photographs, I was missing something essential: touring an exhibition is kinetic. When an image is still, you cannot appreciate its stillness as you approach it moving through space.
Abdullah and I arranged a live video tour of the show. Our video call began outside the gallery doors, where we would meet if I were there in person. The artist called out a friendly greeting to the gallery attendants, the camera panned the lobby then focused on the title sculpture, Everything is True. It was an impressive space and the work had a lot of breathing room. The installation of the show included shifts in lighting in the color of the walls. Abdullah kept the camera at eye-level, moving slowly. Progressing through these strange and frozen scenes, without tactile sensations but able to see, was like moving through a dream.
One work, The Obstacle, consisted of a polished wood water buffalo lying on an Oriental rug. The animal’s head was bowed and its back looked smooth and shiny, like the carved wood in a church. I told Abdullah if I were there, I would want to touch it. He reached his hand out and ran it along the back of the water buffalo.
Abdullah’s work is quiet and serious, though the artist himself is talkative, articulate, and funny. In the galleries, he estimated measurements of the works, playfully mocking the “medieval” measurement system we use in the United States. We came to a sequence of works that he said, laughing, represented “dead things.”
Following the “dead things” was a dark room where the stingrays of Pretty Beach circled on the on the floor. The piece is based on a memory of his grandfather and of seeing stingrays below, beneath the surface of the water. he described it as a loose allegory for death: once the rain came, the stingrays were no longer visible but still there. At first, it was too dark in the gallery to see anything on my screen. Abdullah noted that in person your eyes adjust. I couldn’t hear the subtle audio track of the sound of rain, but gradually, as the camera moved around the installation, I could see, in the dark, the silhouettes of the stingrays on the floor and the glimmer of the crystals attached to ball chains representing the rain.
We finished the tour and it was time for Abdullah to return home, to take his turn watching his children. He lives on a cattle farm on Wadjuk Noongyar Country, south of Boorloo/Perth with his wife, artist Anna Louise Richardson, two daughters and there is a third child on the way. His brother Abdul-Hamid Abdullah who goes by Abdul Abdullah is also an artist. “It’s a family business around here!” he had written in an email. I thanked Abdullah for the tour. We said goodbye and that we would be in touch.
In the end, I did not have the same experience of the show I would have had in person, but I had a meaningful one. my own curiosity had met the quality the work and the willing generosity of the artist to create this experience. A world–the artist’s dream world and his real world–had been opened to me. Art offers us connection to something that is more than physical so it makes sense that it is possible to access it without being there physically. It starts with the desire to transcend the screen, the desire to connect in the common dream of Art.
One evening when I was making dinner, I sent Abdullah a message:
“quick question: does the show smell like wood or varnish?”
“Nope, it doesn’t smell like anything really. Everything is painted or waxed and well and truly cured. Just objects in space now. I only use varnish on eyeballs.”
“Does it feel weird touching their eyes?” I asked.
“It feels great because it’s always the last thing I do.”
I messaged that I had to go make dinner. It was morning in Australia. Abdullah messaged back, “I’m driving the kids to the zoo.”
I could picture that from here.
All images and video courtesy of the Artist. List of individual works can be found here.
Emily Farranto is a writer and artist. She started the art blog Village Disco in 2015 and her children’s book, Animals Mate, was published in July 2020. She posts about the intersection of art and life on Instagram @thevillagedisco