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Atheist critic blind to current religious symbols


Them and Us by Abdul AbdullahJohn McDonald’s scathing assessment of the motivations of the Blake Prize was published at the weekend in the Fairfax press and aired on Radio National. It centres on his view that the Blake fails to produce enough clearly recognisable religious symbols.

McDonald reveals a complete lack of understanding of the role of images within the religious imagination, as well as the positive role of creativity in the expression of contemporary spirituality.

Looking at the 1140 submissions for this year’s Prize leaves me with the impression that the religious imagination of artists in Australia provides a visually exciting contribution to our cultural life that explodes McDonald’s understanding that this is simply the 'self-indulgence of "spirituality".'

One aspect of his commentary centres on questioning the inclusion of works that address human justice, as if religion has little to do with these messy aspects of contemporary life.

My observation would be that people of faith don't sign up for a life on their knees, they tend to get more passionate about living in the here and now. Justice and spirituality belong together as they are not separate specialist areas of our cultural life.

It is crucially important that justice involves having eyes to see. This is the value of a deeper understanding of images that comes through contemporary art. Art is a good place to learn about seeing because artists are restless about believing what they see or giving authority to their own creations. Part of the strength of the art making process is the daily making and breaking of images; it serves to shake off all preciousness towards holy icons and dearly held ideologies.

The image on this page includes a self-portrait of Abdul Abdullah. The work was awarded the Blake Prize for Human Justice 2011. Abdul is an artist who understands the power of the image. As a Muslim Australian he is conscious of being looked at.

His name and his looks mark him out to represent a minority ethnic identity. Of Malaysian background, brought up in Perth, he has just won the Award with this digital photograph, which depicts his brother in the background, behind the image of himself.

It is entitled simply, ‘Them and Us’.  The photo reflects the typical stance of male youth culture dressed in jeans, relaxed but observing. These figures are of dark complexion and we search for a neat way of placing them within our library of cultural groupings. A tattoo emphasises the youthful edginess and we see in the figure to the left the Arabic script that locates him within a Muslim context. 

As a viewer I am unsettled by the ambiguous stance of the main figure addressing me through his gaze. It sets up a relational space that is fraught with choices, assumptions and my own prejudice now made visible. I know in a pedestrian context I would be looking away, if not walking around such a figure. The artist through this means has been able to make me aware of the visual stereotypes I use to evade real engagement. In the process of looking at this figure I begin to intuit that I am being invited to take a next step, to respond. It’s my move.

But of course I need to divide the world into safe and unsafe, mine or yours, for life is filled with hidden boundaries, until of course they are transgressed. But this figure is looking back at me and I wonder what he sees, as looking goes two ways, getting deeper or being broken off.

This tension is best found in the image of the tattoo on the flank of Abdullah that depicts both the Southern Cross and the crescent star and moon. The artist comments, ‘Australia is one of the best places in the world to live. But growing up a Muslim in this country - you get used to seeing Muslims portrayed negatively in the media. In the popular imagination… you are the bad guy. You start to feel the divide of - them and us.’

Here on the skin of the artist are iconic references to both Australian and Muslim identity that creates something new. This is a mark that confronts my expectations about whether this figure is in my tribe or not, or more correctly whether I can widen the boundaries of what constitutes an Australian identity to include this person who is different.

The marking of skin is an act recorded in this photograph that unhooks expectations and creates something new – a space for change and new understanding. Abdullah comments:  ‘The figures look out at the viewer expectantly, trying to build some sort of bridge.’

The artist has in this image achieved two things. He has sympathetically helped us find our way alongside the skin of another. But, secondly, he offers us a way to bridge the space of separation by imagining something new – a Muslim Australian identity that broadens our sense of who ‘we’ are, that invites inclusion and an expansion of our definitions of identity.

I like the way art works. Seeing, and being seen, is an invitation to step outside the stereotypes that straightjacket behaviours and to be surprised by the creative diversity of human culture. Diversity might be our culture’s greatest resource. It may also be our greatest challenge, to dare to open our eyes wide enough to truly see. Sorry John, your idea of God is too small.

A video interview with the artist Abdul Abdullah is on the Blake Prize website, which also features the finalists exhibition that will travel to Queensland, and in 2012 to NSW, Victoria and Tasmania. 

Rod Pattenden
Rev Dr Rod Pattenden is an art historian, educator and Chair of the Blake Society. 

Topic tags: Blake Prize, religious art, justice, muslim, stereotypes, John O'Donnell



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Existing comments

Gosh! I'm an artist. I too take digital photographs and mine turn out blurry which I'm sure any true art expert could interpret as the main focus in any art competition.

Trent | 05 October 2011  

What a wonderfully perceived and intellectually challenging critique!! '...them and us". We all at some time have been either the "us" or the "them"(Irish/English, Catholic/Protestant, Aussie/Wogs and Dagos).
This wonderful piece of art cries out "Why aren't we all 'us'?"

john frawley | 05 October 2011  

Great to read such balanced comment.

MICHAEL | 05 October 2011  

Thank you Rod. I found your article helpful. I can see the work more clearly and also understand my responses to it. Re the critic, trouble abroad today is religious and spiritual ignorance.

Patricia Bouma | 05 October 2011  

Whatever the artistic merits of the entrants in this year’s Blake Prize, John McDonald’s rather silly attempt at iconoclasm on the postmodern was an exercise that Rachael Kohn and the ABC should have known better than to promote on air.

The most telling moment for me was when McDonald started talking in a derisive way about being in touch with the cosmos and inner self-expression, as though these were the sorts of things religious artists did. Funny people, aren’t they? This, it became evident, was McDonald’s idea of what constitutes religious art. His credibility gap suddenly came into view. Does this man really have much idea of the connection between art and religion?, I asked. For someone with so much knowledge of art history, he seemed strangely unaware of what motivates artists to create their works, whether we care to call them religious or not. It wasn’t just that his understanding of the religious imagination was seriously lacking, his ideas about what religious artworks are was so limited (crucifixions seemed to be allowed) that I wondered what he thought he was looking at.

Actually it was McDonald’s criticism that was full of cliches, not the art he was attacking. Expressions like “trendy vicars” were dotted around the place as though they were current vernacular, whereas McDonald unwittingly revealed himself to be living in some seventies fantasyland. The problem was, he had nothing constructive to say that could assist future language about the Blake Prize. Why is he so uncomfortable with religious art, if he’s an art critic? Long live the artists, who go on revealing the workings of the cosmos and the inner self! Thank you John McDonald, not.

PHILIP HARVEY | 05 October 2011  

I knows nothing about Art, but I knows what I loikes.

Funny how Henson's art was abused so roundly by moralists, particularly those of an evangelical Christian bent, like Rudd and the ACL Soldiers of Moral Standards but this clear assault on the Australian Christian view of Islam is being hailed as A Great Work.

Where you sit, is what you see, is a reasonable basis for discussing this rather tardy effort. Others will disagree, and see it as a wonderful effort. Good on yers but don't include me.

The title, Them and Us' is a reflection of the Australian world view that regards Australia as a Christian nation and Muslims as dangerous terrorists.

This snap is a comment on the Howard policies of Orientalism,his fables 'Australian Values', code for Christian Values, continued by Rudd and Gillard but worse, supported by swathes of gormless voting Australians.

The snapper has cut through the Christian hypocrites who say they exude 'love' to all mankind, while secretly they harbour a hatred of all non-Christians, but particularly Muslims at this point in our national history.

If I were not such a lover of art, I'd say it's as much a piss-take as it is Art.

Harry Wilson | 05 October 2011  

I have some sympathy for Johm McDonald if he was looking for clearly recognisable religious symbols in the Blake Religious Art competition entries.

From fairly clear objectives sixty years ago I shall quote from the 60th Blake Prize Press Release to show what is the Blake Prize today.
It is interested in "the conversation between spirituality and contemporary art in Australia."
Artists are invited "to explore their most passionate responses to life and its meanings".
The field of play gets bigger.
"What the Blake has done best ... is to sponsor a conversation about what matters most in our culture."
It doesn't get much bigger than that, does it?

So sorry, John, you were not at a specialist confectionary shop where you may have hoped to find a continuation and development of the delectable sweet recipes of past clearly recognisable religious symbols.

You went to a Tower of Babel where all sorts of confectioners purveyed their wares in the hope that maybe the three Blake judges would see/hear/taste what they were trying concoct out of the ingredients that came their way in their daily struggle to make sense of life (and, with a bit of luck, pocket $20,000).

Uncle Pat | 05 October 2011  

Well said, Rod! Art critics are adept at leading their readers into trendy but obscure enclaves of new ideas in the world of art, but maybe John McDonald's article has betrayed his decision to throw out spirituality with the bathwater of religion.

Rob Brennan | 05 October 2011  

Thanks to Rod for another thoughtful article and to commentators as well. I listened to McDonald and wondered at such narrow and negative views although I reluctantly agree to his right to express them.

Denise Walsh | 05 October 2011  

Thanks for a terrific overview of the art prize. I like Uncle Pat's comment: its a tower of Babel. I was really excited by the commended and winning artists' work. What a pity, Rod, that you weren't on the same show as John McDonald. I was able to show my Muslim colleague here in Kabul the finalists and winners (one was Afghan Australian). The Naqshbandis hang out in these parts. He was pretty impressed with all the finalists' works and very interested in what Australian muslims were creating. Thanks for a great article, made my morning.

jan forrester | 05 October 2011  

Thanks Rod.All well said commentary and McDonalds vitriole left Rachael a bit in a corner I thought. The old dualism he believes in is dying and so too is Christendom. God is in all and all are in god and emerges in art and the judges need to find good art and discern the questions the artist is facing.

Peter | 05 October 2011  

I'm very grateful for Rev Dr Rod Pattenden's
explanation which I found extremely interesting and educational.

That John McDonald does not see the relevance of human justice to religion is very sad. Human justice should be the basic value of religion. I'm sure, though, he sees many people who call themselves religious, but who lack this value.

Maureen Strazzari | 06 October 2011  

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