Ian Abdulla's mother, Jemima Hunter, was from Raukkan (Port McLeay) and his father was an Afghan man from Hawker in the Flinders Ranges. He and his twin brother Rodney were born under a tree on the banks of the lower River Murray at Swan Reach Mission in 1947.
In 1961, Abdullah's family moved to Gerard Aboriginal Community. He worked in the rural industry: picking grapes, monitoring irrigation and driving machinery. Abdullah's experience with Christianity during his childhood and adult life is reflected in some of his artwork. Examples of his art work are held in many private and public collections and are also the subject of the book Ian W. Abdulla : Elvis has left the Building (2003).