Abdul Abdullah

The Complete Picture: Why I Have to be in Sydney

In late 2014, I reached a crossroads. After growing up in Perth, living for a few years in Melbourne, then moving back to Perth, I was deciding where I wanted to base my practice and pursue my career as an artist. I looked to the Australian cities with the highest concentrations of cultural practitioners—Melbourne and Sydney. Weighing the potential benefits and disadvantages I compared the creative culture and community, the quality of living and opportunities for professional development.

When comparing creative culture and community I looked back primarily on the personal experiences I had when engaging with artists in each city. These interactions took place during exhibitions, competitions including the Archibald Prize in Sydney (2011, 2013 and 2014) and the Metro Art Prize in Melbourne (2012), research trips, residencies and arts festivals including the Next Wave Festival in Melbourne in 2012 and the Underbelly Arts Festival in Sydney in 2013. While my conclusions were entirely subjective, I felt I had made a greater number and longer lasting connections with artists based in Sydney. I felt that in Sydney there was greater permeation between creative communities and disciplines, and that these communities were less centralised. And so I chose Sydney.

In January 2015, I packed my entire life into a moving truck, flew 4,000km and set myself up in Australia’s largest city. Prior to the move I had seen each city in much the same light. It was only on moving to Sydney that I came to appreciate how the particulars of Sydney’s housing market affect young people looking to rent. For the cost of the room I rent in a shared apartment in Stanmore in Sydney I could rent an entire house in Perth, and probably a decent studio apartment in Melbourne.

Sydney offers me the opportunity to engage with a range of professional artists that I can learn from, and with whom I can exchange ideas, techniques and professional practices. This type of development is best undertaken in close proximity to other artists and practitioners. With the cost of housing and rent as high as it is, artists in Sydney are being pushed further towards the outer suburbs where working spaces are more affordable. An unfortunate outcome of this migration and dispersion of artists is that concentrated collections of affordable working spaces have become a rarity and the dynamic, effective exchange of ideas that has previously fed creative, critical development in Sydney has been stifled.

As artists, our work is motivated by the critical examination of ideas and I am proud that we are not primarily motivated by the accumulation of wealth. While this particular quality strengthens us, in that we are less beholden to commercial interests and persuasion, we suffer because this position lessens our political agency.

I am very fortunate in Sydney to have secured a studio space at Birmingham Street Studios on the Mascot fringe of Alexandria. This particular space is one of the largest of its kind in Sydney and is used by about 20 professional, full-time artists, who each consistently and regularly contribute to the national discourse. Yet even with the combined economic and cultural effort of 20 artists our building is under constant threat of closure as the zoning laws around the city’s fringe are being changed. Alexandria has traditionally been a relatively low-cost, light-industrial area south of Sydney, but as property prices have risen the zoning areas have been shifted to allow more residential apartments to be built in the area, resulting in warehouses like our own becoming less of a commercial viability for the building’s owners.

This constant threat to medium and long-term property agreements, feeds a common anxiety and an unhealthy protectionism of, and competition over, limited and shrinking resources. The scarcity of affordable working spaces compounds what has felt like a broad assault on culture and creative practices in Sydney since 2015. The two other major components of this attack are the cuts to the Australia Council for the Arts, and the impending closure of Sydney College of the Arts, as well as the possible closure of the National Art School in Paddington.

These three threats to creative practitioners in Sydney reflect a shift in the value placed on cultural capital. I have witnessed a shift in our political environment where, in my view, ‘value’ is almost exclusively equated to potential economic contribution, and where culture and creative practice is only understood in the terms of what it ‘costs’ in dollars and cents, and not what it contributes to a society.

My arts practice in Sydney has provided me with opportunities to work in youth outreach programs with kids at risk, in juvenile justice facilities, with marginalised minorities, kids and young people with learning disabilities and at public and private schools across the state. Without the support of funding, or without the support of funded organisations, and without the support of affordable housing and working spaces, my professional practice would be left to the whim of the market. It is a pretty simple equation. Commercial market viability eliminates risks (especially in emerging arts practices), the elimination of risk goes on to eliminate innovation, and the elimination of innovation results in a stagnation and retardation of culture. Art stops being challenging, and if art isn’t challenging it becomes propaganda. It becomes another tool used to propagate systems of power.

With so much discussion coming from conservative pundits regarding the preservation of Australian culture, like Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party policy that states current immigration levels threaten to ‘[undermine] the maintenance and further development of a unique and valuable Australian identity and culture’, I am always surprised at how little value we put in Australian cultural practitioners.

Despite the challenges of living and working as an artist in Sydney, I still remain. I am surrounded by talented artists who are ready to share their ideas, knowledge and techniques, and that is why I have to be in Sydney.

The Man, 2013, oil, acrylic, resin and aerosol on canvas, 150cm x 120cm. Image kindly provided by the artist.