In the same week as Victoria’s Supreme Court quashed an appeal against the city’s first mosque, the Bendigo Art Gallery quietly unveiled two newly-acquired works by an Australian-Muslim artist – one of which was directly inspired by the anti-mosque protests.
Objectors to the mosque raised concerns about "Islam's integration with western culture", but the gallery’s senior curator Leanne Fitzgibbon said the works by Abdul Abdullah explored the long standing integration of that religion in this country.
“Abdul is a seventh-generation Australian who is aware of his convict past,” she said.
“But he is also a contemporary Australian Muslim and that makes for a really interesting cultural intersection.
“Because of that intersection he is able to reflect, through his work, an enhanced understanding of what it means to be Australian.”
One of Mr Abdullah’s works, Sons of Sycorax (2014), was acquired by the gallery earlier this year.
Mr Abdullah said the self portrait – in which the the artist carries a net full of black balloons – was reference to the black balloons that were tied to the letterboxes of Muslim families and their supporters in the 'stop the mosque' protests in Bendigo last year.
“I try and follow anti-Muslim sentiment across the country,” Mr Abdullah said.
“To me these are the same minds that would have supported the White Australia policy, or opposed Vietnamese migration after the war, or agreed with Pauline Hanson when she said we were going to be swamped by Asians in '96.
“The black balloons seemed particularly insidious though, and crossed beyond free-speech.
“They seemed to me a direct threat of targeted violence – it's one thing to protest in the town square, it's another to go to someone's house.”
Last week was the first time the self-portrait had been displayed alongside his other work in the gallery: Abdul-Hamid bin Ibrahim bin Abdullah (2012).
Despite the protests, the artist described Bendigo as a “beautiful town with amazing architecture”, and said he wouldn’t hesitate to return to the gallery. He is concerned, however, about the potential for Muslims to be targeted in the city.
“My Malaysian uncle is planning a visit later on in the year because he lived there while he was studying,” Mr Abdullah said.
“When I saw him last in Kuala Lumpur I advised him to be careful when visiting with his wife, as she wears a hijab and could be targeted by someone from on of the anti-Muslim groups.”
Mr Abdullah was born in 1986 to Australian and Malaysian parents and describes himself an outsider among outsiders, the gallery Facebook page reads.
“He believes this position grants him a unique perspective on Australian culture and what it means to be a young Australian Muslim,” the post reads.
Mr Abdullah was a 2011, 2013 and 2014 finalist in the Archibald Prize, and his work is included in collections of numerous galleries across Australia.
“The works fit really well with our acquisition strategy, which is focused on displaying contemporary art,” Ms Fitzgibbon said.
“Certainly, Abdul is a rising star in terms of Australia art and his work is quite well recognised.
“We think it’s very interesting and, like with many artists, his work looks back upon us and encourages us to think about our society and our culture.”