Interview by Madeleine Dore

Photography by Prue Aja

Abdul Abdullah

Artist Abdul Abdullah learned to box as a kid. As an adult, remembering the terror of walking out of the change rooms into the ring has meant that nothing else comes close to that kind of fear. Not art. Not losing his art. Not expressing his opinions. Not confronting and challenging perspectives and projections. It’s all a ‘walk in the park’ compared to being in that ring.

Now based in Sydney having grown up in Perth, Abdul’s family history in Australia dates back 200 years, but as he articulated in his TED Talk, his skin colour, name and religion make this piece of biography ‘unsettling and confusing for some people’, perpetuating the feeling of being not-quite-Aussie he has felt most of his life.

‘It says Australian on my passport, I was born here, it’s the only home I’ve ever known … [But] there is nothing Home & Away about me. A Current Affair doesn’t talk about my current affairs.’

Abdul consistently explores identity, otherness and his own opinions in his work in the attempt to encourage others to do the same. Driven by a sense of social injustice, Abdul first dipped his toes in journalism before coming to the realisation that he was better suited to art.

‘No one was listening to a 21-year-old trying to be a journalist, but I found with an image or an object people would sit with it for a while. It didn’t matter if it was any good, people gave it more time,’ he said.

'Art seemed to be the most effective way for me personally to get a message across.'

The young artist has an impressive list of accolades to his name, among them being a third time Archibald Prize finalist – which he first entered when he was just 25 – and taking out the Blake Prize for Human Justice, also at 25.

His work has appeared in both solo and group exhibitions in numerous State galleries, and is collected by Australia’s most esteemed institutions, among them The National Gallery of Australia, Bendigo Art Gallery, and the Islamic Museum of Australia.

Privileging the idea over the medium, Abdul’s work encompasses photography, painting, installation, performance art and video art.

‘I don't want to tie myself to any particular medium like painting or photography, I'm trying to be as open with that as possible.’

Beyond his art, what motivates Abdul on a day-to-day level is our ability to improve the lives of others through generosity.

‘I really value integrity and a good sense of humour. I enjoy someone's ability to tell a joke, take a joke, or find the funny side of things.’

With his reputation as a controversial figure, his boyish laugh and Subway lunch choice came as a surprise. But what is most refreshing about Abdul in the realm of creative routines is that he isn’t a morning person. Getting out of bed at ten most days, his work doesn’t usually begin until late afternoon. 

As we follow his typical day late into the night, Abdul teaches about how to recognise the sinister in others while maintaining generosity, why it's important to do what we want in life, and how to be braver in the face of fear and uncertainty. 



I'm not a morning person, so I wake up quite late. As soon as I get up, I sit at the kitchen table, and make some breakfast. It's pretty much been the same for the last fifteen years – raisin toast, coffee and a banana. Then I sit there writing replies to emails and messages I’ve missed overnight until I leave the house. 



Then I'll have a shower. If I'm out of the house before midday, I feel very proud; the day is off to a good start. [Laughs]

I drive to my studio listening to Spotify. Since I got a stereo put in the car with a sub-woofer, I've been listening to anything that has a really deep bass that makes the car vibrate, and I probably annoy the people who are sitting next to me in traffic. If I have anything to pick up at Bunnings or Officeworks, I'll go there.

I'm trying to go to the gym most days, whether it is running on the treadmill or doing something like that.


After gym I will have lunch nearby. Often it’s Subway but I found a Japanese place that is really delicious, so it depends.


It starts to drift into the afternoon and it can be two, maybe even three in the afternoon, before I get to the studio. I love it – most of the artists in the studio are morning people, so they will be there until around five and then I do the afternoon shift.  

I’ll pretty much get straight back into emails and research – there’s so much computer stuff and research, and admin takes up most of my day. 

It feels like you waste days because you are looking at things or reading – reading is never a waste – but you don't feel that you have been that productive. It is all essential though.


If I am doing painting on a particular day I will sort of build myself up to it. The hardest bit of painting for me is the beginning; first applying the paint or just getting myself off the couch into the studio to start is always scary.

But once you are in the rhythm, it is great. Looking at the blank canvas, however, l will procrastinate and put it off, and it might take me hours to start. It happens every time. I never get to the studio and just dive into a painting – I will look at it and mumble and talk about it to myself. That's one of the other things that makes being in the studio by myself good – I can talk to myself without people around thinking I’m too weird.  


During the production phase of a work, I can be in the studio until one, two or three in the morning and then I’ll come home and have dinner and go to bed.

I don't think that is good – someone told me it is bad for me to have dinner late, so I’m trying to work it so that everything is earlier. 

Now I’m trying to have dinner at eight o'clock, usually lamb chops with steamed vegetables or roasted chicken and veggies. It is quite a boring menu. Occasionally I’ll get something out, but if I am cooking, that is what it will be.


After dinner I continue researching and painting if there is some to be done. I will work usually till about three a.m. or maybe a little earlier and then come home to do other stuff like read, or watch YouTube, which is sort of research.


I take the laptop with me to bed and keep looking at things until I fall asleep. 


I'll usually go out midweek. I avoid going out on the weekend because there are too many people. 

Downtime is usually going to an exhibition opening. It was different in Perth where I have lots of friends I grew up with, but in Sydney my entire social network I guess is art people. Openings are lots of fun because everyone comes out. If a person isn’t into art, I sometimes find it pretty hard to find something to talk about.

But really, what do people do for fun? I have no idea. Art is a very solo thing; mostly I'm just in my own head. 

I go back to Perth every six weeks as well, which is always fun. Family is super important so I go back and see them and see friends. 


On how working every day is actually stress free…

I don’t do much that is unrelated to my work, so I work every day. But it seems like every day is half working, half not.

There will be patches where I will be working really hard but often it is chilled. In that sense it is a really good life; I’m often stress free.  

On the originality of ideas…

Sometimes it can be stressful when I start thinking about how I’m in an industry where I have to think of new shit for the rest of my life, that weighs heavy sometimes. With each work, you have to almost reinvent the wheel.

Not that I think I have a jar of ideas and one day it’ll be gone. But more that I see my art as this particular view of the world and hopefully it will continue to mean something to other people. I just hope that filter I have stays relevant and I’m not making obvious or boring art.

On the process of creating work for the Archibald Prize… 

For me, the planning is the big thing. Many artists will struggle with a canvas or they will have an arm wrestle with an idea. I have a slightly different approach in that it is all pre-planned. Not so much planning the brush strokes – I try and keep loose – but the composition and what I want out of the final painting. It is quite a clinical process.

I know what I want out of a work and I won’t often stray from that path once the painting starts. 

On the insidiousness of casual racism…

When I get hate mail or people are critical of something I’ve done, part of me knows that if they were to meet me and we were to have a chat, I could probably get them close to my way of thinking. Most people are well meaning. Usually they just don’t have all the information, or have just never thought about something from another person’s point of view.

It is much harder when they already have the information, but choose to ignore it.

When they’ve used their education to refine their particular prejudice, and use clandestine language to present their points of view under the guise of rationalism or liberalism, it becomes much more difficult. And some people are just racist.

On living a life outside external expectations…

There’s something to be said for pushing against expectations. If you ask me to do something, I’ll do just about anything, but if you tell me to do something, I won’t do it. I don’t like living by anyone else’s rules. Absolute self-determination is the goal.

I just want to be able to do what I want, when I want, for the rest of my life. I couldn't stand the idea of having a boss.

On what makes an extraordinary life…

You often think about your good memories: being on holidays and spending time with friends, but the bulk of your life is in between. I’ve got another tattoo on my chest that is a saying from the Quran that says, "a smile is a charity". And I think if you can do something genuinely altruistic for a stranger or someone else, it's good for the soul. It can be small things, it can be big things, it can be career things, it can be small life goals.

Doing the best you can or committing yourself as much as you can to helping other people to achieve something and supporting that in whatever way you can is really how we should focus our days.

On being an artist from the beginning…

When I knew I could be an artist I saw myself as an artist.

At art school I started calling myself an artist, as opposed to an art student.

A lot of people I did my undergraduate course with in Perth thought that I was cocky, but at art school I was just pretty dead-set on what I was going to do – this was going to be my job, and nothing was going to stop me.

I want to be producing work until I'm 100. I don’t imagine that I will have a career change, but I think that my art will diversify.

If I’m doing what I am doing now but just on a larger scale, and I'm still contributing meaningfully and with dignity, then that is the dream. 

On speaking from the gut without fear…

There are many privileges as an artist, but one of them is that I don't have a job to lose. The worst thing that can happen is that I am broke again, and that's okay. I'm not making the money an accountant makes, but I feel very comfortable in that sense, especially compared to what it was like when I was growing up. I'm not scared of not having any money.

I've come into it with nothing to lose, so I speak from the gut without fear of anything.

Both my brother and I boxed a lot when we were kids and that sort of mentality has stuck with us.

The discipline was so rigorous, but also there's something terrifying about walking from the change rooms into the ring, and nothing else is that scary after that. I think that's really affected me in that what I do with my art is a cakewalk compared to boxing.

I don't feel worried about speaking from the gut or making reactionary work or being responsive. I don't have to cater to anyone else's sensibilities in that respect, but at the same time I know the importance of being respectful of people.

On ‘nothing’…

I've got this really cheesy tattoo that just says "Nothing" upside down so that I can read it. 

The idea is that you come into this world with nothing and you'll leave with nothing, and that everything that you get in the middle is borrowed. So don't hold onto anything too much, or get too worried about it.

Not that I don't like the comforts in life – I really like to be comfortable. But I’m not too fussed about losing it.

"Just being able to be supportive of someone, without expecting anything back. I think that's an extraordinary life; being generous in that respect." 

Watch Abdul Abdullah's TEDxSydney talk
Combating Prejudice with Art