”In a strange way, it’s the voices who rail against political correctness that seem to be the first to want to have politically correct speech – in their minds – from an artist who comes from a background which they see as violent or threatening,” Abdullah said.
“I wonder if I had a different name or a different religion whether this would have been news at all.”
Mr Christensen and former NRL player turned councillor, Martin Bella, led calls for the removal of the two works, For we are young and free and All Let us Rejoice, from a council-run gallery. They were joined by the local RSL which said they feared for the mental health of local servicemen and women.
A spokeswoman for Mr Christensen directed the Herald to an October statement in which the member for Dawson said he was all for free speech and freedom of expression but taxpayers and ratepayers should not subsidise political messages that attacked soldiers. Clr Bella did not respond to questions put by the Herald.
Tensions got so heated that extra gallery security was needed, the artist received hate mail and poppies were dropped at the gallery entrance.
The tapestries bear Abdullah’s signature style of an emoji, cartoonish character or motif over a traditionally painted backdrop. This year the artist was a finalist for the Sulman and Wynne prizes for paintings with similar imagery.
“The smiley face is an emoji I’ve used in a few different series of works where I’ve talked about the difference between a person’s lived experience and the perception of them and what they project – the difference between how we feel and how we seem,” Abdullah said from his studio in St Leonards.
“In the case of these images of the soldiers, there’s the dark experience of war and all the turmoil they’ve experienced but in every case where I’ve met a soldier they’ve said they’ve always had to put on a brave face.”
Mr Christensen took issue with the artist’s description of soldiers as surrogates
involved in “‘illiberal, destructive actions in other places” and that those coming across Australian soldiers in action would see them as an ”existential threat”.
The MP said it was particularly affronting to veterans that the exhibition would have run during Remembrance Day.
After initially defending the artist’s right to freedom of expression, Mackay Mayor Greg Williamson announced the work’s removal. He declined to respond to the Herald.
Abdullah said he was never asked to explain his intent and he’d be the last person to disrespect servicemen. Two of his great grandfathers fought in Belgium and France in World War I. One grandfather fought in Papua New Guinea in World War II, the other with the British Navy in a submarine torpedoed in the Indian Ocean.
“What’s happened here is so unfair,” said Esther Anatolitis, executive director of the National Association of Visual Artists. “It’s deeply unfair to the veterans and veterans’ groups who’ve been misled on work they never saw by an artist they never met.”
Following its opening in Noosa Regional Gallery on Friday, the exhibition Violent Salt is scheduled to travel to Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery, but those dates are also in doubt with the mayor Paul Antonio telling local media he did not want Abdullah’s works displayed. Staff at Noosa Regional Gallery elected to add kids labels to the interpretation of the touring exhibition including one for Abdullah’s works, and a sign at the entrance with a Lifeline number.
Independent curators Yhonnie Scarce and Claire Watson said that they were surprised and disappointed that Abdullah’s embroideries were taken down from the exhibition in Mackay without consulting with them or the artist.
Censorship of the work, they said, and particularly “hostile remarks” leveled towards Abdullah, only demonstrated the value of exhibitions such as Violent Salt.
The show is scheduled to travel to Lake Macquarie City Art gallery in June, then Canberra Contemporary Art Space and Swan Hill Regional Art Gallery and Bundoora Homestead Art Centre in Victoria.
Linda Morris is an arts and books writer at The Sydney Morning Herald