The story of the camel tied to a tree is often used to explain how our behaviour and self-awareness can be manipulated and shaped. A camel tied to a tree repeatedly will stay close, even when untied. In Journeys, Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s solo exhibition at Linden New Art, a camel calf nestles quietly in a circle of rope, the noose loosely dangled from its neck.
The calf is confined by an illusion, one it can easily escape, yet does not. Visitors look on with awe, but who is to say we are not the camel ourselves – programmed to behave in a certain way with imaginary boundaries that we are seemingly hopeless in fighting against.
Yet this work, titled Practical Magic (2016), holds personal meanings for Abdullah. He recalls how his mother quickly grasped an understanding of Australia’s vegetation after seeing him as a toddler stuff every plant he could get his hands on into his mouth.
Knowledge of nature is a form of practical magic, a tradition that was passed on by women in Abdullah’s family. Thus, the work also presents a sense of comfort and protection in the wisdom of others.
This beautiful, and at times unsettling, backdrop of mythology runs through Abdullah’s show at Linden New Art, consisting of three intricately carved animals each occupying their own space, and telling tales of religion, faith and spirituality, but also lived experiences of migration. Buraq (2020) brings to life the mythical winged-horse in Islamic lore, as Abdullah reflects on how children of migrants are often presented with a fantastic story of journey and discovery.
‘From the arrival of my mother in Australia, to the migratory networks of my ancestors between the Malay Peninsula and the islands of Sulawesi, Borneo and Sumatra to distant origins in Taiwan, journeys have been made,’ says Abdullah. ‘When people are required to commit themselves to a seemingly impossible journey, a divine precedence may offer the necessary wings.’
A black python coiled languidly under a low-hanging chandelier is Abdullah’s latest addition to the series, titled I am your treasure (2023). It peeks out from the room, a fortune-teller enticing us to come close and let our curiosity unravel.
It’s hard not to marvel at the skill of these wood-carved creations, even as expression has taken predominance over craftsmanship in much contemporary work. Their very existence blurs the boundary between reality and fantasy.
I am your treasure also presents, by chance or curation, a thread of interconnection with another work displayed at Linden – A white bird flies in the mist, a black bird flies in the night, a woman walks, wild and free, she is not afraid to die (2008), in Nell’s adjacent exhibition, Old New Wave.
A black, wildling figure who uses a unicorn horn (or narwhal tusk) as a cane, leads a clan of Nell’s emblematic glass ghost sculptures. While the figure’s identity and purpose is a mystery, their stance is confident with other-worldly wisdom.
The artist has cast the little transparent ghosts as herself, 33 of them to represent her age at the time of creating the piece. Hand-blown and irregular, except for the three oval holes marking each face, their expressions display surprise, worry, exclamation – a chorus following the lead, perhaps of Nell’s deeper, more mature muse.
Old New Wave includes five of Nell’s works spanning 15 years of her career. The only one without her ghostly motif is A line of poetry (2021), consisting of a walking stick, a giant clam shell and a gold-plated egg.
All hard shells without revealing the softness within, the work can almost be read as insight into her artistic process. It begins with assemblage and symbolism, making viewers want to claw deeper into a hidden story – only to see themselves reflected in a solid, golden egg. Humour and joy can always be found in Nell’s creations, even if the works themselves showcase dark or complex motifs.
This exhibition then turns to the idea of growth in On a Withered Tree, Ghosts Bloom (2023). A tree of grey, oxidised stainless steel is accented with more tiny, gaping ghosts and phrases. Its trunk emerges from below Linden’s floorboards.
It’s a tree that can only grow and blossom at the discretion of the artist but, even when dormant, points to the changes in the landscape within which it has been embedded. It is a witness to what was and now is not.
First Floor Gallery: Kate Just
Showing concurrently in the upstairs gallery at Linden is Kate Just’s Self Care Action Series, a new body of work comprising 40 hand-knitted panels with slogans of self-care.
‘Make art’, ‘stay sober’ and ‘get therapy’ are designed to encourage action, but the panels also highlight the care and labour Just has put into creating these works. In a sector where discussions on mental heath are ever-present, yet improvement is slow, Just is using her own actions to encourage individuals to prioritise their well-being.
There is a sense of bright optimism even as all of us, including the artist herself, struggles in this new era of emotional stress, economic pressure and ecological disaster.
Everything is always easier said than done, which is why it’s so important to recognise that, although the works are text-based, these panels present actions rather than slogans. It’s an act of the artist extending her own journey of radical self-care to others.
It may take a little time to get past an initial sense of guilt to indulge in these fuzzy, enticing words of comfort, but once you do, Just’s works are as much about rebellion as they are about care.