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Artwork from a Queensland exhibition, aiming to promote marginalised voices, has been taken down following complaints.
The move has sparked heated debate on censorship and the importance of respect for members of the armed forces.
At the centre of the controversy are two tapestries, by Abdul Abdullah, which are part of the controversial 'Violent Salt' exhibition which has been open to the public at a gallery in Mackay, since the end of August.
The works, entitled 'All Let Us Rejoice' and 'For We Are Young and Free', depict two non-identifiable military figures with an outline of a smiley face over the top.
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Mr Abdullah said the artwork was intended to invite the viewer to think about how the Australian military is perceived in Australia, and in places where the military is engaged.
But after a Facebook post by local councillor Martin Bella, complaints and condemnation of the artist and the local council by community members quickly grew.
Another vocal opponent of the artwork is the local RSL.
"Today I was shocked and disgusted to find that our council contributed to an art exhibition that contained a certain work," Mr Bella wrote on October 30.
"It is a defaced image of our serving soldiers, but it is only when you read the accompanying blurb that you realise just how disrespectful it is."
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'An issue of mental health'
Mackay Mayor Greg Williamson initially said that the artwork would remain on show, citing free speech, but a week later he announced the artwork would be taken down.
Cr Williamson said he started by "trying to uphold the fact that art is meant to provoke a discussion in the community," but then decided that "if [the artwork] contributed to one veteran being pushed over the edge, then it just wasn't worth it".
"We had a very respectful and very articulate meeting with the RSL," Cr Williamson said.
"Eight people from the RSL and the Patriots motorcycle group…put [forward] their case that there is a serious issue with veterans' health and wellbeing in Australia at the moment."
But Mr Abdullah said the works were not meant to be "denigrating or dismissive or disrespectful" but should be seen to represent the "brave face" people put on in difficult circumstances.
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The Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors (軍人勅諭 Gunjin Chokuyu) was the official code of ethics for military personnel, and is often cited along with the Imperial Rescript on Education as the basis for Japan's pre-World War II national ideology.
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Reay Tuck, president of the Mackay RSL sub-branch, said when he first heard about the artwork he was angry and concerned for service personnel.
"He, in fact, likens our soldiers to being no better than blackbirders," Mr Tuck said.
"He considers our soldiers as just agents, and when we go away to other countries, everybody is terrified of us.
"What we were concerned about is that many of our servicemen, and [those] currently serving as well, would be affected by those remarks and that analogy."
Mr Tuck said it could be argued that the artwork is "implying that the soldiers are hiding behind masks".
Mr Abdullah said he felt the RSL had been misled, but empathised with the people who had been upset by the debate.
"All I can say is that this is not the intention of the work at all," he said.
"I think they've been manipulated by some pretty underhanded politicians."
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Mr Abdullah said he initially saw the controversy as local politicians creating what he called a "political football, pretty transparently for their own short-term political gain".
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Abdul Abdullah is an Australian artist , whose striking paintings, photographs and installations explore themes of belonging, racism and alienation. The work of Abdul Abdullah is shaped by the strong political discourse and yet visually appealing executions. Namely, the matters of identity, race, and
Mr Bella and Queensland MP George Christensen first voiced their concerns in separate posts on Facebook.
"It would be different in a private exhibition — maybe — but public money, some from returned vets' rates went to this," Mr Bella said.
"Free speech is one thing, but respect is another."
In an interview with the ABC, Cr Bella said, "they're defacing the image of our serving soldiers."
Mr Christensen also cited the use of government funding in the exhibit.
"The Australian and Queensland Governments — yes, my own bloody Government — have funded this 'art' which so openly attacks our troops," he wrote.
Mr Abdullah said neither man had spoken to him directly about their concerns.
"They just made their minds up from the beginning and then have gone straight to the media, straight to the press and straight to social media," he said.
Mr Abdullah denied that the artwork would impact the mental health of veterans and did not see it as a reasonable justification for censoring the work.
He said he was "passionate about the mental health of our returning soldiers", but also about wars he saw as "unjust".
"This is not a slight on any of the soldiers that go, this is a slight on the government who makes those decisions," Mr Abdullah said.
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"I come from a family lineage of veterans.
"I've got two grandfathers who fought in World War II, both in New Guinea, and two of my great grandfathers fought in Belgium and France in World War I".
According to the young artist, he also has a great grandfather who fought in Malaysia and was taken as a POW by the Japanese, where he was "tortured quite badly".
"To think that I'd go around disrespecting their memory and disrespecting their service is insulting," he said.
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Mr Abdullah said many of the complaints on social media had referenced his name and assumed ethnicity.
"It pisses me off that I've had to defend my loyalty to this country for my whole adult existence," he said.
"Looking at the way that people have engaged with this topic is really frustrating because it so quickly goes down to that 'I should go back to where I came from',
"We've been here since 1815 — my ancestors (came)here as a convict on a ship called the Indefatigable.
"It seems to me that I'm not allowed to participate because of my name, and I wonder if my name was different whether this would be news at all."
The controversy continues to follow Violent Salt — while the exhibition has left Mackay, the mayor of Toowoomba, Paul Antonio, says he will try and block Mr Abdullah's works from being displayed.
The art will find a place on the gallery wall at Noosa, however, where the exhibition is currently being staged.
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