IAN ABDULLA: New Work 2007



28 Nov - 21 Dec 2007


Exhibition Text by Max Tomkins, November 2007

Ian Abdulla is very clear about his reason for being an artist. In conversation with June Edwards of the State Library of South Australia, Abdulla made the point that he is only interested in telling people, particularly his children, what life was like on the 30-kilometre stretch of the Murray on which he grew up. 1 Abdulla is adamant in his belief that:

... every painting has got to tell a story and they have to be real and true.  I can’t tell a lie on a painting. I can’t do other people’s stories, or tell something that didn’t happen to me. I’d be too embarrassed to do that. 2  

a belief that was echoed by Philip Jones in a review written at the time of Abdulla’s first solo exhibition. 3  Abdulla grew up surrounded by his people. Having been born under a tree on the banks of the Murray River, he really has not moved very far from his birthplace over his 60 years of life 4, apart from visiting his various exhibitions in Australia and overseas.

His personal history has inevitably shaped his art. His paintings are homely and domestic, as he remembers his life on the river and in the Aboriginal Missions where he lived. An early work, Finding Frogs at Night (1990) exhibited at his first solo exhibition at Tandanya in 1990 introduces his typical high viewpoint that gives the viewer a panoramic sweep of the scene inhabited by tiny figures. Under a myriad of stars that look like light globes, Abdulla’s flat perspective assisted by a simple text above the main action 5 tells the story in a straightforward manner. The torches illuminate the frogs climbing the trees, while another of Abdulla’s friends works the crossline, attaching the frogs as bait for the fish. In the same way, Fishing along the Katarapko Creek (2007), allows us to see the expanse of country that was part of Abdulla’s daily life. The fishing and the shooting of the swans is emphasised by the text that provides a precise explanation of their value and, at the same time, reminds us that these same swans were soon to be proscribed as a food source for the Aboriginal people because they had become an endangered species in the eyes of the Europeans.

By using this form of naïve simplification, something that can be seen in the work of the nineteenth century Aboriginal painters William Barak and Tommy McRae, both of whom used the same perspective and style, combined with his rough lettering, Abdulla creates a sense of innocence. 6  

This homeliness predominates in Abdulla’s oeuvre, particularly in the two books he wrote for his children, As I Grew Older and Tucker, both of which were written in direct response to his desire to show them what life was like along the Murray when he was growing up. Spot lighting at night for rabbits (2007) not only shows us Abdulla and his friends hunting for food, but the crowd in the back of the utility which, by the look of its exhaust is nearing the end of its life, shows the closeness of his ties with his friends and the enjoyment of the hunt. Despite the frequent depiction of deprivation, Abdulla’s art contains humour rather than rancour. 

There is no sense of anger in his paintings, simply an autobiographical journey that gives us the lows and highs in a very gentle manner. Even those paintings that do make a ‘political’ comment are tinged with regret rather than anger. 

In Ian Abdulla, we have a skilled and engaging artist whose work has done much to enhance the world of contemporary Australian art. Abdulla’s vision is somewhat restricted and domestic. His life is the unifying force with which he created honest and compelling art. His visual manifestations of oral history are modern versions of the story telling of traditional Aboriginal elders like Wunuwun and Bulun Bulun, filled with truth and cultural vitality. Getting water from the channel (2007) not only shows us the work he and his friends undertook, but also takes a slight dig at the Europeans who used the waters of the Murray to irrigate their crops while the Aborigines who did the work of cultivation had nothing but an earthen channel from which to draw water for their daily needs. There is little bitterness in this image, but there is awareness that the Aborigines were deprived of even the most essential of services. Unwilling to tell any other stories than his own, his response to Philip Jones on the question of appropriation was very direct: ones: Do you ever look at the heart of, say, Central Australia or the Top End – bark paintings? Or do you think that is quite different? That’s a different culture altogether. I could never touch them.  I could never dream of doing that, because it’s nothing to do with me. You see if I go from here to the other side of Port Augusta, I’d be in trouble straight away. Because from there on they use dot painting and they got stories for them. They got their own stories and I got my stories. That’s why I can’t go any further. I’m only just doing River, River stories. 7  

Ian Abdulla, despite a history of deprivation and poverty still had his home country to maintain him and his children to pass on his heritage, and in his visual domesticity Abdulla contributes an immeasurable amount to Australian contemporary art. 

Max Tomkins, November 2007


1 Ian Abdulla Oral History Project, 9 June 2004 [transcript], State Library of South Australia. p.8

2 Adelaide Review, September 2003. Interview with David Sly

3 Jones, P., Adelaide Review, July 1990, p.18.

4 The map of Abdulla’s home area is in the back of both of his books, with small alterations giving specific sites for various paintings. 

5 Ponde and Pilarkie are Ngarrindjeri words for Murray Cod and Callop respectively.

6 Ian Abdulla Oral History Project, p. 7

7 Jones, P., op.cit.