Born and raised in Aceh, at the far western end of the Indonesian
archipelago, Mahdi Abdullah has had much of his adult life shaped
by the threedecade war fought between separatists from the
province and government forces.
Now 53, he came of age as the conf lict started in 1976. Three years
later, after graduating from high school in 1979, he moved to
Yogyakarta to study art. He returned to Aceh in 1984 shortly before
the war reached its peak through the late 1980s and early 1990s. Its
violence remains a major inf luence on much of his work.
Through the following years he continued painting and also working
as a journalist, lecturer and cartoonist contributing work to both
national and Aceh magazines and other publications. In 1990 he
held his first solo exhibition, paying for it by selling his motorcycle.
He now exhibits both in Indonesia and other countries, most
recently with a show titled “Picturing Pictures” held at the Ho Chi
Minh City Fine Art Museum in Vietnam.
The early 2000s saw two brief pauses in the Aceh insurgency. But
the final catalyst for peace came from nature, and the devastation
caused by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, after which both sides
declared a ceasefire. The tsunami, however, also devastated Mahdi’s
home, killing his parents and two younger siblings, and destroying
his entire collection of 40 paintings along with many sketches,
drawings and photographs.
Since 2009, Mahdi has lived in Yogyakarta, enrolling at the Institut
Seni Indonesia, the country’s leading art school, and opening a
studio. He paints daily for around eight hours, sometimes longer.