Faisal Abdu’Allah on storytelling, barbering, and enlightenment
Abdu’Allah’s show “Squad” runs through September 27 at the Chazen.
As the child of Jamaican immigrants to Britain, Faisal Abdu’Allah was introduced to storytelling in what was one of the few black-owned businesses in London during his childhood (bank lending practices were often racist)—a barbershop in the back of the home of “Mr. Right.” Abdu’Allah would visit the barbershop monthly, spending hours among elderly Jamaican men smoking cigarettes, drinking Heineken, playing dominoes, and telling stories of home. Mr. Right himself represented an oracle to Abdu’Allah, directing the conversation, inserting his opinion, and moderating disagreements. Abdu’Allah, who is a barber himself, found that barbers have the potential to be “authors of knowledge.”
Abdu’Allah’s life has been characterized by the blending of seemingly distinct worlds: the world of the barbershop and the world of academia, the Jamaican values present in his home and the culture of London at large, his Christian upbringing as Paul Duffus and conversion to Islam as Faisal Abdu’Allah. The investigation of these ideas has been present in much of Abdu’Allah’s work. His photography tells these stories. Stories about someone you don’t know, or someone you might have made assumptions about. It explores questions of race, identity, placement, and privilege; it crosses boundaries of culture and experience.
His show Squad: The Calling Of The Common Hero, on display through September 27 at the Chazen Museum of Art, was created collaboratively with students in a curatorial studies class in UW-Madison’s Art History department. Abdu’Allah, a visiting professor for the class, was inspired by ideas of honesty, bravery, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the students themselves. Drawing from the same concept he used in his 2012 project Adeve, Abdu’Allah photographed each of his four students, then four others selected by each of the students as their personal exemplars of bravery or heroism. The squad of eleven is completed by two MFA students at the university who co-created the 2014 “Black Be Nimble” installation and a Native American youth, the “next generation of squad.” Three of Abdu’Allah’s earlier works—"Last Supper I," "Last Supper II," and "Revelations"—introduce the show. Abdu’Allah, now an associate professor in UW-Madison's Art Department, spoke with me recently about his work, life, artistic influences, and the exhibit itself.
Tone Madison: The introductory text to this show says that you consider yourself a “social storyteller,” and that your work is a sort of social commentary on displacement, privilege, and cultural assumptions. How did your upbringing and beginning to do work in Britain help shape those ideas?
Faisal Abdu’Allah: I guess that it starts back with my parents, who came to the U.K. from Jamaica in the 1960s. In around the kind of mid-’50s there was a big influx of immigrants from the Caribbean, because the U.K. was short on laborers after World War II. And my dad always reminded me that he didn’t come on the boats—he flew. So, he came a few years later on Air Jamaica, came to London. This was a time when race relations, you know, tensions were very high because the U.K. had to adjust to the influx of people who were from the commonwealth.
When my father first came here, he was trying to find places to rent, and there was an iconic sign that would be on the windows in West London: “No Irish, no dogs, no blacks.” So he immediately experienced this level of difference. Yet within that level of difference and alienation, there was a very strong bond in what I knew of the Caribbean community, and, in my instance, a Jamaican community.
With all that happening around me as a young person, my father was a church minister. So when he was leaving for work in the morning, he would speak to this picture on the wall of the Last Supper, and he would make supplications to these pictures. I was just a young kid going, “What is he doing?” And I began to think about the importance of images and people within those images, and, as a young child, I began to make those connections. So I would go to school, and—what you have to understand is that as a young black person in the U.K., you live in two worlds. You live in your home, which is another world where they’re bringing in Jamaican values, and the other world outside your door, which is the U.K., which is London. So I was very conscious of my body through the landscape, very conscious of how I was speaking, my mannerisms, how I would act. It was almost like I was in these two movies. And so when I went to school, I befriended the kids who had blonde hair and blue eyes, because they looked like the saviors on my wall in my house that my father was making supplications to.
So I guess that’s kind of the beginnings of my world, and my father’s strong spiritual influence really coded my way of seeing. As I developed and became an artist, I felt that was problematic. I felt those early years were problematic. I mean, I wasn’t scarred in any way, but visually I thought, it’s problematic in that if I didn’t begin to question those nuances, those forms of representation, what kind of person would I be now? And the artwork that I began to create began to just question all those methods of representation and pages in my life.
When we’re thinking about the show, [the curatorial students] really picked up on the "Last Supper," the tapestries. And in some ways that was almost as if they were trying to say, I think, this was when I began to find who I was. So after I made [my first photographic work] "I Wanna Kill Sam [Cause He Ain’t My Motherfucking Uncle]," I got this stuff out of me. And when I made the "Revelations" and the "Last Supper" series, I was really coming into my own and understanding who I was. It’s almost as if when you walk in the space you get this sense of enlightenment, you get this sense of transcendence. You get this sense of the collective. So these guys [in the "Last Supper" tapestries] were people who I knew in the ’90s, and they were young men who made the transition into being Muslims. This really, I think, articulates the spirit of London in the mid ’90s. It was a way of waking up, being more enlightened; it was an era of enlightenment for young men. So in some ways this is the space where I became a different person. You know, you have from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, and I went from Paul Duffus to Faisal Abdu’Allah. So this is where you see that moment of transition.
Tone Madison: I find your choice to use Muslim models for such a well-known religious scene interesting given the lack of iconography in Islam and the widespread resistance to seeing people of color as a part of this history. Would you say there’s a sense of defiance in the way you’re upsetting people’s expectations of what this scene looks like?
Faisal Abdu’Allah: Yeah, I mean, for me I would hope that the term “defiance” isn’t something that would be a part of the vernacular. For me, I would hope that it would be that there are these alternative ways of seeing, and I think that the absence of the black body in popular culture is so apparent. Especially within the history of painting. And the way in which the black body is utilized as a servant, as something enslaved. Its complexity is never articulated. What I hope that these works have done over the years is reestablish the historical relevance of the black body, reestablish the truth in history that people of color have actually played, and also bring a kind of humor to it as well. You don’t have to be too serious, but I want it to be that people will say, “Some of these things jar with us.” But they only jar with you simply because you will not accept that there are people that don’t look like you who were part of this history, and they’ve been erased out. In some ways those who have control of knowledge, and history, they rewrite. And people can agree with it even though it’s not the truth. I think the work looks at all those complexities. So for me it was very, very important that there were these points that people can look, access parts of themselves, and feel a sense of presence.
Tone Madison: Going back to your idea of the transcendent experience—with all this religious imagery opening the show, walking into the space with the portraits is almost like entering a church. There’s this high ceiling, and the larger-than-life portraits are reminiscent, to me, of saints on a stained glass window. Did you have a religious experience in mind while curating this exhibit?
Faisal Abdu’Allah: Oh yeah, I’m so glad you picked up on that. I cannot help but reflect on things that I’ve collided with in my last forty-six years of my life. And I’ve had a very layered life, traveled the world extensively. But, you know, that young kid called Paul Duffus who sat in church, seeing my dad on the pulpit, screaming at people, saying, “You’re going to hell! Damnation!” I’d look to my right, and I’d see these stained glass windows and see the saints. I think the reference point, the filtering of light, the smells, all that stuff is very much a part of me. And for me I don’t see myself as adopting any kind of religious angle to my own work. The work is more spiritual than religious.
I use references, and the important thing is to bring people into the work, and not push them away by creating this space between us and them. It’s important that I want my audience to walk inside the frame and feel that sense of what’s going on. It’s almost like there’s a momentary pause within the works that you feel you’re a part of.
Tone Madison: Aside from the obvious connection of incorporating human hair into your prints, how do you see your work as a barber and your work as an artist connected to each other?
Faisal Abdu’Allah: I think that what’s really interesting is that some years ago in London there was a very important dealer, or curator, and I had friends at this conference or something. And they were asking him, “What’s Faisal Abdu’Allah doing now?” And he said, “Oh, he’s given up being an artist. He’s going to be a kind of”—what did he say?—I think it was the “Vidal Sassoon of the barbering art world.” He was under the impression that these spaces were very different, very separate, and that one almost had no intellectual gravitas to it, and it was ghettoized. Like, yes, he’s going to do that and earn money, but the art thing is separate. But the weird thing about that was that I said, “You know what? I don’t give a shit what they think.” I thought about how the best art comes from a place of honesty. And never, ever in my lifetime did I ever deny the fact that when I was student, when I was at Central St. Martin’s in London, when I was at the Royal College, that I was cutting hair on the weekend so I wouldn’t have a student debt. And I realized that these two very different spaces that I was being in—so Monday through Friday I’m in the Royal College talking about theory, and Freud, and Foucault, and Derrida, and Stuart Hall, and you know, all the great theorists and philosophers. But on the weekend, I’d be talking about Ice Cube, NWA, Bob Marley, and Shabba Ranks, and all that kind of stuff, relationships and stuff. So I think I was very privileged in the way that I was grounded in that barbershop space; I was seeing culture unfold over a period of years. Anything that was “in,” that was being thought about, was being discussed in the barbershop. And I thought, you know, why don’t I just pick the ideas from the shop and bring it into my work?
Tone Madison: What drew you to portraiture as the best way to explore all these ideas?
Faisal Abdu’Allah: That’s a good question. When I was nineteen, I did a semester here [in the U.S. at Massachusetts College of Art], and before I came to Boston I was in London working with abstract colors and mark making. I was working more autonomously, with automatic drawings and stuff. And when I came back [to London] from the U.S., I began to use found images. So I began to find images from newspapers of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Ice Cube, and Tribe Called Quest, and I would make all these colorful screenprints of these so-called “icon orators.” I made this comparison between the orators of the ’60s and the Civil Rights era versus the modern-day orators of rap music.
It was my professor in London [at the Royal College of Art], who sadly passed away, Tim Mara, who sat me down and he says, “You use a lot of found images. How do you feel about that in terms of copyright, and in the years to come if you begin to grow as an artist, what could be the implications and ramifications? Have you tried taking your own images?” I said, “No, I’ve never done that, because I don’t value photography.” That’s what I said to him! And he said, “You should try taking your own pictures.”
So it started from then, with "I Wanna Kill Sam," and I don’t think it ever stopped. And people began to realize that there was a level of engagement with the subject, and intensity. Whether they thought it was natural, or whether it was lucky, I don’t know. I just felt very comfortable working with the human form and the live subject and ensuring that there was some type of connection with the gaze when they look back at me, and in some ways emptying all that humor, the happy stuff, and allowing people space and time to engage with the subject and try to articulate something about that individual or individuals. And yes, I work with sometimes abstract notions and objects, but the presence or the essence of the “in person,” or “being,” was always present within the work. So for me I think it’s just really important to assert this thing about the body and different kinds of bodies, narrating different stories and to just narrate them as quickly as possible. There’s nothing in the way, there’s no space to kind of say, “well, maybe?” It’s right there.
Tone Madison: For Squad, as well as for your earlier work Adeve, you chose just a few of your original subjects, and then had them choose who else you were going to photograph. Was it difficult to give up that much control over the content of your work?
Faisal Abdu’Allah: No, I think it’s very easy. I like to work collaboratively with my subjects, and I think it’s very important that if that’s the essence of the work, I just create the conditions to allow it to naturally flourish. For me it was important that this was not about Faisal Abdu’Allah. It was important that this was about the life, and the stories, and the spirit of the collective of individuals that create this spirited thing. So whether it’s Squad, whether it’s "I Wanna Kill Sam," whether it’s "Last Supper," whether it’s Adeve, these are a series of works that have been created in collaboration with the subjects to ensure that there’s clarity and there’s no conflict in between me, them, and the narrative that is told through their presence.