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Atheist critic blind to current religious symbols

By Rod Pattenden - posted Thursday, 6 October 2011

John 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.'

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This article was first published in Eureka Street on October 5, 2011.

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About the Author

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

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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