Tuesday, October 16, 2018

In Memory of Mel Ramos

Mel Ramos at Magnolia Editions


We are sad to report that longtime friend of the studio and Pop Art pioneer Mel Ramos passed away this weekend at the age of 83.

Born in Sacramento on July 24, 1935, Ramos studied art and art history at Sacramento State College. He taught at local high schools and held a teaching position at CSU Hayward from 1966-1997, continuing as an emeritus professor while teaching intermittently at CCAC (now California College of the Arts).

All the while Ramos maintained a highly prolific studio practice which, in addition to his signature oil paintings on canvas, encompassed a variety of printmaking techniques including silkscreen, etching, woodcut, and more.

Mel Ramos - Wonder Woman, 2014
woodcut with acrylic
image: 37 x 26.75 in. paper: 44 x 30 in.
Edition of 30


Ramos's work was exhibited and appreciated worldwide; in later years, he enjoyed great acclaim particularly in Germany, where it seemed there was a nearly continuous demand for his colorful, instantly recognizable Pop Art style.

In 2010, Villa Stuck in München, Germany mounted a major solo exhibition, "Mel Ramos: 50 Years of Pop Art," comprising five decades worth of work by Ramos including paintings, drawings, watercolors, and sculptures. Another major exhibition of his work was held at the Albertina in Vienna, Austria in 2011.

German galleries and collectors figured prominently in the enthusiastic response to the editions Ramos published with Magnolia over the last several decades.

These projects included woodcut images of classic superheroes; tapestry versions of some of his most iconic paintings; a limited edition, laser-cut jigsaw puzzle featuring Ramos's take on comic book hero Captain Midnight; and the Albrecht Durer tribute Leta on Durer's Rhino, an etching with UV-cured acrylic ink on paper, executed at Magnolia with the help of master printers Tallulah Terryll and Nicholas Price and additional assistance from artist Guy Diehl.


Mel Ramos - Superman, 2014
woodcut with acrylic
image: 37 x 26.75 in. paper: 44 x 30 in.
Edition of 30


"Mel Ramos: 50 Years of Superheroes, Nudes, and Other Pop Delights," a retrospective of over 50 years of Ramos's work was exhibited at the Crocker Art Museum in his hometown of Sacramento in 2012.

Mel often visited Magnolia with his wife Leta and daughter/studio manager Rochelle Leininger. Below please find a gallery of memories from some of his recent visits.

Ramos with artwork by Don & Era Farnsworth; note his Mel Ramos t-shirt!


Ramos with an early proof of the UV ink layer of his 2015 Hawkman woodcut edition


Ramos with proofs of his 2015 Hawkman woodcut edition


Ramos and Guy Diehl with proof of his 2016 etching Leta on Durer's Rhino


Diehl, Ramos, and Don Farnsworth with proof of his 2016 etching Leta on Durer's Rhino


Ramos celebrating with Magnolia staff at Bay Wolf restaurant in Oakland, CA


A film crew captures Magnolia master printer Nicholas Price printing a Ramos woodcut at Magnolia


Ramos with proofs of his 2014 woodcut Wonder Woman


Don Farnsworth, Guy Diehl, Ramos, and master printers Nicholas Price and Tallulah Terryll with proofs of Ramos's 2014 woodcut Wonder Woman


Ramos editioning Wonder Woman with Tallulah Terryll and Rochelle Leininger


Farnsworth and Ramos with the latter's label design for Christian Tschida winery


Ramos at home in his Oakland studio with proofs of his 2016 etching Leta on Durer's Rhino


Rochelle Leininger, Mel Ramos and Leta Ramos at Ramos's studio with proofs of his 2016 etching Leta on Durer's Rhino


Portrait of Mel Ramos by Don Farnsworth


Portrait of Mel Ramos by Don Farnsworth


Ramos at home in his Oakland studio


Ramos with work by George Miyasaki at a memorial for Miyasaki


Ramos with Price and Ernst Hilger at Magnolia Editions


Mel and Leta Ramos with Beverly Berrish at Magnolia Editions


Ramos at Magnolia Editions


Portrait of Mel Ramos by Don Farnsworth

More art by Mel Ramos from Magnolia Editions

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Donald & Era Farnsworth at Port Angeles Fine Art Center


Donald & Era Farnsworth - In the Moonlight (I Forget I'm Human), 2017
cotton Jacquard tapestry with acrylic paint, 96 1/2 x 64 1/2 inches

Please join us at Port Angeles Fine Art Center in Port Angeles, WA for the opening of "I Forget I'm Human," an exhibition of tapestries and works on paper by Donald and Era Farnsworth on view from September 22 through November 18, 2018. An opening reception with the artists will be held Saturday, September 22 from 5-7 pm.

Additionally, the Farnsworths will give a public presentation in the Raymond Carver Room at the Port Angeles Library on Sunday, September 23, 3-5 pm; this event is free and open to the public.

Donald & Era Farnsworth - Bulwark, 2017
mixed media on linen canvas, 70 x 46 inches

In "I Forget I’m Human," the Farnsworths address the relationship between humanity and the environment, investigating how myth and science have shaped human values from ancient times to the present day. Nearly all of the compositions in "I Forget I’m Human" include multiple layers of both hand-painted and digitally generated elements, creating a palimpsest-like effect that echoes the layers, patinas, and weathered wabi-sabi of works that have survived from ancient times while also incorporating contemporary digital processes.

The exhibition includes tapestries which use a medium older than oil on canvas – weaving, albeit updated by 19th-century Jacquard and 21st-century digital color matching technologies. Meanwhile, the Farnsworths' Art Notes series ‘recycles’ and re-imagines one dollar bill notes, re-envisioning the “Almighty Dollar” as a site wherein to celebrate heroes of creativity and conservation and to light-heartedly castigate polluters and oligarchs. A series of works depicting therianthropic (animal-human hybrid) deities harkens back to those appearing in the earliest surviving human artworks while also incorporating elements from Buddhist, Hindu, Judeo-Christian, Islamic and Jungian iconographies.

Donald & Era Farnsworth - Aulos Echo, 2017
mixed media, 42 x 31 inches

From ancient gods with the heads of animals to living, breathing endangered species; from the capitalistic fever for accumulated wealth to precious natural resources like clean air and water, what we value is evident in the symbolic and visual output of our species: our myths and sacred images. In "I Forget I’m Human," the Farnsworths trace this output, offering a glimpse of the hubris of humanity matched with an optimistic appeal for spiritual and ecological balance.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Open Studios June 2 and 3: Handmade paper sale!

Find handmade paper at an exceptional bargain this weekend at Magnolia's open studios.

Artists, art lovers, collectors, and handmade paper enthusiasts alike are invited to visit Magnolia's Open Studios this weekend, June 2 and 3, from 10 am to 4 pm.

The studio will offer a print sale during Open Studios this year. Such sales only happen at the studio once or twice a decade... Many brilliant editions from the archives will be available at a discount!

Various sizes, colors, and quantities of handmade paper will also be available at unprecedented prices -- in many cases, lower than what you might pay wholesale.

Please join us at 2527 Magnolia St in Oakland, CA (Google maps link).

(Please note: sale applies only to framed work and selected editions. Sale prices available only to Open Studios visitors in person; sorry, no sale prices via web/phone.)

Thursday, April 12, 2018

"Nomadic Murals: Contemporary Tapestries and Carpets" at Boca Raton Museum of Art

Alexandre Arrechea - Mask Series: Havana, 2016
Jacquard tapestry, 99 x 99 in. Edition of 3

Numerous tapestries published by Magnolia Editions will appear in "Nomadic Murals: Contemporary Tapestries and Carpets," on view at the Boca Raton Museum of Art from April 24 – October 21, 2018.

The show is not limited to tapestries from Magnolia: tapestry publications from the studio by artists such as Kiki Smith, Aziz & Cucher, Alex Katz, Kiki Smith, Nancy Spero, and Alexandre Arrechea will be exhibited alongside woven works by various other artists including William Kentridge, Fred Tomaselli, Kara Walker, and Kehinde Wiley.

Kiki Smith - Harbor, 2015
Jacquard tapestry, 116 x 76 in. Edition of 10

The exhibition’s title refers to the portable nature of the medium; the phrase “nomadic mural” is borrowed from an essay about tapestry by Modernist architect Le Corbusier.

Throughout the centuries, notes the exhibition press release, important artists such as Rubens and Raphael were famous for their tapestries, and in the 20th century artists including Picasso, Braque, Leger, and Miro embraced the medium. Today, artists have increasingly incorporated tapestry into their oeuvre no matter the medium for which they are known.

For more details, please visit the Boca Raton Museum of Art website.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

"Ethics Excess Extinction" at El Paso Museum of Art

Kiki Smith - Congregation, 2014
Jacquard tapestry, 116 x 76 in. Edition of 10

Opening January 26, 2018 at the El Paso Museum of Art and curated by Randy Jayne Rosenberg of Art Works for Change, "Ethics Excess Extinction" features contemporary artists exploring the theme of endangered animal species:

The exhibition explores the reality of animal life: cruelty towards animals as seen through factory farming; the breeding of animals for their hides and fur; hunting animals for their potential medicinal powers; and an alternative vision of the world where all animals are respected and protected from suffering and commercial exploitation. The artists examine the many sides of the story: from the philosophical, where animals are regarded as emotional beings in which we recognize ourselves, to the economic, where animals are killed and sold to support the demands of luxury markets.


Kiki Smith - Earth, 2012
Jacquard tapestry, 116 x 75 in. Edition of 10

Participating artists include Kiki Smith, Chris Jordan, Esther Traugot, and Nick Brandt, who variously use poetry, humor, technology, and scale to explore the plight of endangered animals and our relationship to them. Artworks range from three tapestries by Smith (published by Magnolia Editions) to large-scale photographs to literal “white elephants” in the room created by Miami sculptor Billie Grace Lynn.

For more information on the exhibition, please visit Art Works for Change.

Kiki Smith - Sojourn, 2015
Jacquard tapestry, 116 x 76 in. Edition of 10

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Artist interview: Rupert Garcia

Rupert Garcia - Hoodwinked, 2017
Pigmented acrylic inkjet on Rives BFK; image size: 29 x 25.75 in. Edition of 10

The following interview took place at Magnolia Editions on November 30, 2017 on the occasion of the publication of Rupert Garcia’s new print edition Hoodwinked. The print will be shown as part of “Rolling Thunder,” a show of prints and paintings exploring fifty years of American military involvement in conflicts from Vietnam to the Gulf War and beyond.

“Rolling Thunder” will be exhibited at Rena Bransten Gallery from January 6 through February 24, 2018, with an opening reception on January 6 from 5 - 7 pm; for more information, please visit the Rena Bransten Gallery website.


NS: The historical connection you draw in your 2010 print Obama and Douglass makes me think of another historical link, between today and the 1960s. The cliché exists of the 1960s as a period of political turbulence and upheaval — the political firestorm of the century. But it feels like we are in a place now that is actually more contentious and more polarized. As someone who not only lived through the 1960s but who served in the military during that time, I wonder how you would compare the current political climate to that of the '60s.

RG: They’re similar in that they both employ deceit to persuade us — false truths, or lies, about why we should do this or that domestically, go here or there to invade or why we should globally do this and that. Much of the military activity is not based on the true need for self-defense but more often than not upon economic or political convenience, upon fabrication. I myself can say that I volunteered to go to Vietnam. But I learned later that the underlying reasons that made it possible for me to go to Vietnam — meaning, for example, the bombing of North Vietnam from ‘65 to ‘68, LBJ’s project called Operation Rolling Thunder — the reasons leading up it were fabricated. And there were many other lies: the Gulf of Tonkin... We can also go back in history to see how the U.S. has hoodwinked us in going to war, overthrowing, and invading countries or governments that they disagreed with or turned on. And now, not only are the things Trump is saying basically false truths, but his distorted constructs are based on what he thinks and feels and what he gets from his advisors. Look at the way important legislation that impacts the lives of Americans is rushed through by the Republicans without discussion; it’s undemocratic, it’s unjust. Or even going back to Bush’s administration and his argument for going to war in Iraq, which turned out eventually to be all based on fabrications, especially with regard to Iraq having weapons of mass destruction. The way Bush used -- or should I say abused -- Secretary of State Colin Powell to convince not only the U.N but the world that invading Iraq was necessary. All lies. It makes me angry to think of all the military men and women who died because of Bush’s deception; that’s what some of the work in the current exhibition at the Rena Bransten Gallery is about. We’re really right in the middle of “Trump world” and his administration intentionally lying, inciting hate, promoting sexual abuse, disuniting in our country and the world.

Rupert Garcia - ¡Fuera del Golfo!, 1991
Screen print; 30.25 x 23 in.
Edition of 124

What also is really unsettling is that his base seems to uncritically go along with him. What’s further amazing is the degree to which the Republican Party and its members on Capitol Hill aren’t out in droves pressing to have Trump held accountable. Why not? Well, for some of them, it’s because they’re interested in maintaining their voting base — who seem to fully support Trump no matter that he is working against their interests in support of the wealthy — to keep their jobs and continue receiving monetary support from the right wing billionaires and millionaires who want their agenda and Trump’s to succeed. As a whole, the Republican Party doesn’t want to rock the boat, because if they do, the big donors may stop their checks going to them and have their money go somewhere else. That’s the only explanation I have for why the Republicans aren’t doing more when it’s obvious that they need to — it’s political, party before country, so undemocratic. It’s obvious what’s going on, who’s lying and why, and members of the same party as the president see it too — but they’re acting overall as if it’s not there. It’s a falsehood to maintain a sense of security in America in a certain segment of our society.

NS: So you have this show at Rena Bransten Gallery coming up which is very clearly about war — about the Gulf War, about Panama, about Indochina, the invasion of Grenada; how did you arrive at this concept and the title for the show at this particular moment?

RG: For years I’ve been making works on paper and paintings dealing with war. I didn’t set out to make a series on war. It's just what I was picturing at the time. On reflection, at a certain point in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, I did take a general look at the production of my pictures and found that there is a wide-ranging presence of war, the arc of which goes back to World War II. From when I was a boy until right now, there has always been a war that the U.S. was actively involved in. I would hear about it on the radio or see it in the newspaper. And so I digested that; I don’t know what I did with it, but I took it in.

Rupert Garcia - N.E.W.S. to All, 1993
Oil on canvas, 72 x 72 in.

At the same time, I was also aware of the war of racism -- or better said, white supremacy -- from childhood to this very day. That was a very strong influence on me and in particular, what really highlighted it were the Zoot Suit (Pachuco) Riots of the 1940s in L.A. and the murder of Emmett Till in the mid-‘50s. Those historical events really affected me: I had family members and friends on the periphery of the so-called Pachucos, and because Emmett Till and me were the same age, as were my closest friends. I remember that vividly: I couldn’t understand why these grown white men had so violently murdered this black teenager. And that has stuck with me to this very day. Meanwhile, my dad and his brothers and my mother’s brother all served during WWII up to before the Vietnam War. My two brothers were in the Army and the Marines. So this was all there, always consciously or unconsciously a part of me. Then I go into the military.

So after I was released from the military, in ’66, I went to San Francisco State College to study painting and start making pictures. My first pictures for a few years weren’t about war yet — although I made an early etching in ’67 about the war and children in Vietnam, which is in this show. Eventually I started to make images of war, though not as a conscious series or theme. Only years later when I looked at my work did I start to think: wow, our country has been involved in invasions for a long time, up to right now. And that was upsetting. Most of those invasions were not based upon necessity. They were — and are — politically or economically convenient. That realization was also upsetting.

About a year ago, Trish Bransten, a director of the Rena Bransten Gallery, and I had a discussion about doing a show concerning war. We thought this could be a very interesting show, to gather work from different points in my picture-making career, covering 1967 to 2017, and to select pictures that we thought would make a great visual statement — aesthetically, for me, they’d be very exciting to look at — and intellectually probing, questioning, revealing, elegant, beautiful. I wanted the show to have a combination of concerns within the art of war.

Rupert Garcia - Rolling Thunder, 2017
Mixed media, 52 x 96 in.

So we undertook finding a title, and we threw a few titles around. And then we thought of the campaign that I was in, in Indochina, which was called Operation Rolling Thunder. So we decided to call the show "Rolling Thunder," without including Vietnam in th title by specifying that it was about bombing North Vietnam.

NS: Even though the show’s title might refer to Operation Rolling Thunder, it’s not called Operation Rolling Thunder; it’s simply taking only that poetic piece.

RG: That’s absolutely correct. Because each war is a rolling thunder of sorts. I thought, I rather like that. And I like not using Operation in the title of the exhibition, not just that it would be too specific, but to give the show, as as you say, a poetic umbrella. And then I made a painting in 2017 titled Rolling Thunder; that’s the first painting I’ve ever made that directly concerns my own involvement in the Vietnam War. I’ve made a bunch of other works on war, but that’s the first one that’s really specifically about me. In 1970 I made the poster called Fuera de Indochina for the Chicano War Moratorium in Los Angeles on August 29, 1970, or the 1967 etching The War and Children — they were about Vietnam generally, but they did not represent my direct involvement in a specific mission. The painting I did for the show, Rolling Thunder, is the first -- as is the self-portrait print called Hoodwinked.

NS: You have used this image in a piece at Magnolia —

RG: I did a painting [1965, 1970, 2002, 2003 (Self-portrait) from 2003], a sectioned work based on the “underpainting” of three different black and white photographs, but if you’ll notice I’ve comparatively veiled these photographs with paint.

Rupert Garcia - 1965, 1970, 2002, 2003 (Self-portrait), 2003
pigmented inkjet and acrylic on canvas,
37.5 x 74.25 in

NS: Right, it doesn’t necessarily read as a photograph in that painting; it’s obscured and there is a layer of color. Whereas in Hoodwinked it very much reads as a photograph, an institutional portrait. So this has much more of an autobiographical feeling to me.

RG: Yes. I overlaid my eyes with the armed forces ribbon from my Vietnam Service Medal. You get this medal and the ribbon to go with it if you served in the Vietnam war. The ribbon's tricolors represent South Vietnam. It’s beautiful — I love the formal aspects of that ribbon: its colors, its shapes. While researching this picture, I went online and downloaded a large reproduction of it, and I liked it even more, formally. I imagined it simultaneously as a hard-edged painting and as the Vietnam service ribbon, and I liked that tension between the two. I thought of my going to Vietnam in part as being based on lies, hence the title Hoodwinked. And I thought, what can I do with this photograph taken of me in Indochina right outside of my base in 1965 and with this ribbon I was awarded in decades later. I made different sketches and compositions, trying to navigate an ambiguous yet sincere visual relationship between the two, the photograph and the ribbon. And this is what I came up with — the ribbon shrouding my eyes. And when I came up with the final idea, I thought, that’s exactly how I feel. And I like the way it looks: the authenticity of the photograph and the authenticity of the Vietnam service ribbon put together add up to something more than the two. For me, it reaches the heights of a poetic experience — but based in history and in a personal history.

Rupert Garcia - Hoodwinked, 2017
Pigmented acrylic inkjet on paper; image size: 29 x 25.75 in. Edition of 10

NS: The ribbon as a hard-edged painting reminds me of this device I see in many of your paintings where a photographic image is interrupted by— or has this rhythmic interplay with — these colorful fields of hard-edged abstraction, almost like panels of color. And the color has a significance; it’s chosen for its specific meanings, historically and symbolically. So it’s fascinating to see that again here, where you have the photographic image married to something more abstract which by virtue of its design and coloration refers to something quite specific. Do you remember where this photo was taken?

RG: It was taken in a town in Thailand called Ubon Ratchathani; it’s a town that was near the Ubon air base where I was stationed. I went into town one day to a photographic studio with a friend of mine to have my picture taken, simple as that.

NS: What would you do with a photo like this, at that point?

RG: Well, I think there were two things that I had in mind. First, it was to be used as a memento of me, for me; but not in any kind of patriotic gesture — just a personal photograph. And second, I thought I might share it with my family when I got home.

NS: You were saying that you felt the reasons given for America’s involvement in Vietnam were false, but you also said you felt your own reasons for being personally involved turned out to be false. Can you tell me more about that?

RG: Sure. Well, let me clarify first: the falsehoods I’m talking about in terms of the Vietnam war are specific to me volunteering to go there, not generally about the war. Specifically, the Gulf of Tonkin affair and the rationale for Operation Rolling Thunder, which Daniel Ellsberg helped to fabricate. Those are the two elements that hoodwinked me. Later I was able to step back and see a larger string of fabrications about war in general. But now I’m talking specifically about me offering to go to Vietnam. As I mentioned earlier, my motivation was also based on the history of the many members of my family who were in the military. I’d never known a man in my family who hadn’t gone into the military. My two brothers were in the military, one in the Marines, one in the Army. I joined the Air Force, not out of patriotism by the way, but as a working class kid in Stockton looking for a job. So what do you do? Well, I got a job in the Air Force. It was just a job.

Rupert Garcia - Memorias de Honolulu, 1987
Acrylic on paper, 30 x 120 in.

NS: Were you living near a base at the time?

RG: No, not at all.

NS: So you had to want it.

RG: Well, I wanted a job; I didn’t want to be in the military, I wanted a job. And I went to different recruiters: the Marine corps, the Army and such. And the Air Force lied the best.

NS: (laughs) How so?

RG: Well, I joined, so they must have lied the best. They made it sound like I could become a general in a year. (laughs) “You’re just what we need!”

NS: So you go to a series of recruiters, and the one that presents you with the shiniest-looking opportunity happens to be the U.S. Air Force. From there you go to basic training in Texas?

RG: Yes, at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. I went there for basic training for a couple of months or whatever it was. And the drill instructors really kicked your butt: they trained you and they shouted at you and they tried to deconstruct your ego and to give you another one, the one that they wanted you to have. But I saw through all that. I was 21 and probably the oldest airman in my platoon in basic training. There were kids that were young and just scared to death. And I saw through the drill instructors' methods of indoctrination. Then I started training in security: not as an air policeman as such, because there are different ways you can be an air policeman, all kinds of different jobs. I ended up doing security and sometimes secret duty. So I wasn’t a cop as such. There are APs and there are cops, but I wasn’t a cop. By the way, before I arrived for basic training, my grandmother, who was born in El Paso, told me not to go into town because gringos don’t like Mexicans. So I only left the base once.

NS: And how did you get from San Antonio to Indochina?

RG: Well, when I finished basic training, I received orders to report to an air base. And I got orders to serve at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana. I spent three years there. I loved the landscape and I loved the sixty below zero weather. At first I didn’t love it; I thought I was going to die! But I didn’t want to stay there any longer. For me, it didn’t feel good; it’s a very racist town and area. I remember going to a bar and being asked: who are you, or what are you? So I said, I’m out of here. It just didn’t feel right with the people in town. I went to school at Great Falls College, and I met some students there. I was taking a general science course. There were a handful of people I met that were decent human beings but I didn’t want to spend all of my four years in the military there. So I had to figure out, how to get out of here? Well, there were two ways — I only knew of two. One was to join the special forces. And the other was to ask to be transferred to someplace in the world where nobody wanted to go. So first I signed up for special forces. I did all the paperwork with the sergeant and I was ready to go. But in the end I decided, I don’t want to do this.

Rupert Garcia - March 20, 2003, 2009
Mixed media on two panels, 47.75 x 136.5 in.

NS: Do you remember why?

RG: The reason was pretty abstract for me at the time, but after thinking about it, it really didn’t feel right. And I think the reason underneath that was that it might drastically change my values, how I see the world.

NS: So it’s not just that it might go against your ethics but that it might corrupt your ethics...

RG: That’s correct, my own ethics of how I think and feel about the world. I mean, I was excited about going into the special forces — I was ready to go.

NS: Not just to get out of Montana?

RG: Yes, just to get out of Montana. That was the main reason! So then I volunteered — I said I’m going to get out of here, I’m going to volunteer for Vietnam. That was the hot place: “you don’t want to go there.”

NS: Do you remember your impression of the Vietnam war at the time?

RG: Oh, it was simple. The good guys and the bad guys. We Americans are the good guys and the Communist Vietnamese are the bad guys.

NS: So it fit into the larger Cold War narrative — a black-and-white checkers game.

RG: Which I was totally brainwashed to believe in. Most Americans were conditioned to believe it as truth. As you put it, black and white. We’re good, they’re evil.

NS: You were trying to stem that rising tide of communism...

RG: Absolutely, John Wayne and all that. Absolutely. I mean, that’s not why I went, but I’m sure that was there in my unconscious.

NS: It wasn’t a motivator, but it was the way you made sense of what was going on.

RG: Absolutely.

NS: And when did the black and white become gray — when did your understanding become more nuanced?

Rupert Garcia - Night Cap, 1993
Oil on linen, 72 x 72 in.

RG: When I came back to the United States in 1966. But I experienced disturbing circumstances while I was in Indochina. For example, somebody in the bunk next to mine attempted to commit suicide. And there were other security people on my team who were coming to work at night either high on drugs or drunk. We’re out on the tarmac securing these jet fighter bombers that are at the ready to take off and do some harm, and these guys are unfit to perform their important security duties. They’re supposed to be there for you, and you for them, to make sure that no intruders sabotage the planes -- so that was also a shock. And then there was a race incident on the base, where the black and white airmen had gotten into a brawl. So I’m thinking, wow, there are two warfronts: one back home, that continues here, and the other warfront of Vietnam. But there was another war front, the anti-war movement back home. I also said and promoted — after hearing about the beginning of the war protests in the United States — that the military should send us back home with our M-16s to show these protesters the truth. Because I bought the propaganda, I really believed it.

NS: So you came back and that propaganda started to seem a little empty..?

RG: I fly from Indochina into Travis Air Force Base in Sacramento. And that’s where I was relieved of active duty. That was the end of my four years. So I left Travis not wearing my uniform...

NS: You didn’t wear it on the plane?

RG: No, no — on the plane you are ordered to wear it. But it’s called “mustering out” — that means you come to the air base and you spend a week or so signing papers and you’re going to be released. My dear friend, James Yee Young, from high school picked me up; he was an ex-Marine. And I didn’t feel right. And I didn’t wear my uniform. I can’t quite explain it. I just didn’t feel right. And when I went to San Francisco State, starting as a junior in ’66, there was a strong development of an anti-war discussion, an anti-war movement, on campus and off campus. A discussion about civil rights. Critical debates and activities are happening around the world. And I participate in this and I start to allow myself to be as open to this as I could. No one knows that I had ever served in the Vietnam War. I didn’t tell anybody; I kept this close to my chest. So when I started to participate in critical discussions, reading leaflets that people were passing out, and studying philosophy and sociology and anthropology, taking special courses that were designed specifically around critical thinking and new theory about the commodification of everyday life — I began reading New Left theory and was exposed to the Black Panther Party and other Third World liberation thinking. And it began to make sense to me; it really made critical sense. I started to become aware of the historical reasons for certain wars that the U.S. was involved with and I began to understand how I got to be involved in the Vietnam war — still feeling ambiguous about it, but coming to understand it has been and continues to be helpful.

Rupert Garcia - ¡Fuera de Indochina!, 1970
Screen print, 30.25 x 23 in. Edition of 50-75

And then I met a few vets — not many, it wasn’t important to me to interact with fellow vets. But I met one who spent two years in Vietnam in pretty serious situations. That was Oliver Stone. We became friendly. Sometime in the 1980s, I was in L.A., I was supposed to participate in a summer art program for high school students at Loyola — was it Loyola? I forget. It was a college right near the L.A. airport. And my apartment was located right near where the jets take off. My first night there, I’m trying to go to sleep and the jets are taking off. I can’t sleep, and I freak out. Because for four years in the military I was around jet fighter bombers, and one of those years in Indochina, where I was on a secret air base. So jets always surrounded me. And it became quite disturbing for me that night to hear these jets — I went through all kinds of emotional changes. So I called my wife and she says, take care of yourself, it’ll be alright. I called Oliver, and I said, hey man, I’m really messed up. He said, come on over to the house; we’re having dinner, just come on over. So I did. I walked in Oliver’s home and he says: “Rupert’s coming in and he’s having an episode.” He said it in a supportive way where it was no big thing, don’t worry about it. It was just what I needed. And that was very important because it made me realize that yes: the disturbing years spent in the military are still with you, but it doesn't have to define who you are for the rest of your life. It may never leave you, but it shouldn’t totally direct you. So that was a very important moment. So the next day I resigned my teaching position and went home, back to the Bay Area.

So I never got disillusioned about the Vietnam War until after I got back home in 1966. I was never disillusioned while I was in the military. There were things I didn’t like, but it wasn’t disillusionment about the whole military apparatus.

Rupert Garcia - The War and Children, 1967/1995
Etching; image size 15.75 x 11.125 in.

NS: At the same time, it sounds like although you might have been drinking the Kool-aid as far as the reasoning behind American involvement in Vietnam while you were in the military, it doesn’t sound like you were especially invested emotionally. For example, Hung Liu was in the Chinese military —

RG: I didn’t know that!

NS: Yes, that’s true. But she says even though she has very conflicted feelings about what happened and how she and her comrades were lied to by those in power — she gives the example of visiting bridges or other landmarks named for battles that took place there, only to find out after leaving China that those battles never happened — despite that disillusionment, she says that when she hears the “Internationale,” her heart still beats faster. It’s in her DNA. When she hears that song, it still awakens the spirit of a certain kind of patriotism. But it doesn’t sound to me like the American flag or “The Star Spangled Banner” evoked the same kind of response for you.

RG: Not at all. Let’s look at it this way: it was said that the flag and the national anthem represents this rosy, utopian world of freedom and equality; that meta-narrative — because I never saw it or felt it, I never totally embraced it. And then I realized that that narrative is a veil: it’s used to deflect us from the exploitative and corrupt realities of our country and its culture and politics — corporate America, government, politicians, lobbyists, and so on. This was after I started to study and read; all this critical thinking, it really changed and saved my life. I began to think critically for myself, well, that’s just a screen. All the platitudes hide what’s really happening underneath all that highfalutin’ talk about freedom, et cetera.

Rupert Garcia - Erupting Iranian Platform, 1988
Mixed media with oil on canvas, 80 x 66 in.

NS: That brings me back to the Cold War; I’m curious about your take on Russia re-emerging as a cartoon villain in contemporary politics, and especially the meta-narrative that you’re describing that pits America as a representative of freedom, democracy, and free markets versus the Communist state that holds all of its citizens in an iron grasp... When what you actually have now is two corporate oligarchies, the United States and Russia, both more or less owned and manipulated by the richest people in each country. And yet the way a lot of people talk about Putin sounds like the old narrative of the Cold War. How does all of this strike you?

RG: Let me say this right away, I don’t think Putin’s Russia is being portrayed as a cartoon villain, he IS a villain. Well, of course, I bought into the Cold War after World War II. When the wall came down in East Germany, I was subscribing less to it and even less so later on in my life. At times, it seems as though all nations, nation-states, leaders and their representatives are corrupt to one degree or another. Some are more or less corrupt than others; some have a more friendly and convincing line to put out, and some are more fierce than others. So I have an equal amount of mistrust in Putin and Russia and a profound mistrust for Trump’s administration. Both governments are liars to one degree or another — they’re not for democracy, equality, justice for their respective citizens. Russia, for sure, is not for the people. By comparison, the U.S. claims to be more for the people than not, but in fact, if you just look around the country you can see it’s just not true: there’s such poverty, racism, infrastructure dilapidation, and homelessness that you would think that would be the first thing on the agenda for our government to take care of its people!

NS: The inequality...

RG: Absolutely. Inequality at all levels. There is equality for the wealthy and corporate America but not for Americans in general. Don’t get me wrong, I would rather live here than anywhere else, I’ll tell you that. But that doesn’t mean I’m not critical. To have a true democracy, you must have citizens that are critical of it, to make sure it’s on the right path according to the Constitution and other just laws. All countries, leaders, and organizations are not all composed of good people doing all good things all the time. It’s not that it’s impossible to truly make America greater than it is. And the populist spin Trump gives to “Make America Great Again”, it seems to me, does not represent not the real reasons. The real reasons are to make the rich richer, to exploit the working and middle classes, to cause domestic and international chaos to promote his right wing agenda. I make these critical observations as an optimist who is not easily convinced.

NS: I wanted to ask you about your parents and grandparents — where are they from?

RG: My parents were born in the United States. My mom’s parents, Ruperto and Guadalupe Atilano, immigrated from Jalostotitlan, Jalisco, Mexico to California. My father’s parents moved from Fresnillo, Zacatecas and El Paso, Texas to California.

NS: I ask about this because the current president, when he began his campaign, he started with a speech specifically condemning immigrants from Mexico. What do you make of that?

RG: Well, I think his racism and xenophobia are sincere. I mean, his latest example of this was his retweeting the suspicious anti-Islam video of the “Britain First” movement... It’s there. When he said the vicious and condemnatory things about immigrants and then that the Mexican-American judge was incapable of being impartial — it’s another example that he has a problem with people of color. He seems incapable of being a critical thinker; if he was, he’d be doing the right things.

Rupert Garcia - 1492 +1775, 2001
Pigmented inkjet print, 28 x 44 in. Edition of 5

NS: As you’re saying this, it strikes me that this show is not just about war — that the way you’re approaching war serves as a direct rebuke to Trump, by way of example. What I mean is that you’re engaging here, in the work, in active historical awareness and in critical thinking about a difficult subject that doesn’t oversimplify it. And both of those things are almost antithetical to Trump and his ilk: historical awareness and critical thinking. So those are like an antidote, in a way.

RG: I guess one could extrapolate that from work you see in the exhibition, although that’s not my intended motivation and this work does not represent the attitude of all my work.

NS: And that’s why I say ‘by example,’ because you’re doing it more so than you’re saying it. You’re not proselytizing — you’ve been doing it for forty or fifty years.

RG: Right; my work is dedicated to visually figuring out, in various visual modes, who I am in the times in which I live and have lived. Making pictures is a personal practice. I do not set out to make art to make people happy, discerning, to want to stay alive, to know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, or to discover who they are. Even though I make pictures based on personal motivations and if others are touched by the work, that’s a good thing.

NS: And to even have that kind of intellectual curiosity, to explore history that way, or to think about it critically in a way that allows for shades of gray — if you poured that water on Trump, it would be like the Wicked Witch of the West: “I’m melting, I’m melting.” There is no room for that in the Trump mindset. So this is like an antidote, even if that was not the intention; it can serve as such for people who are wondering where to go from here. The emphasis you’re placing in this work on being aware of history and thinking critically — those are things that people can do.

RG: Absolutely. It’s very important. That’s what I learned, coming from not having those attributes and then acquiring them, I can do this. But through all this, I have maintained and fought for a sense of wonderment at being alive. As a kid, I can remember experiencing how awesome it is to be alive; to look at the sky, the stars, it’s unbelievable. I don’t try to explain it, I'm just overwhelmed by it and trust it.

NS: And the sky is the source of thunder, too; thunder comes from the skies.

RG: Right. In some moments when I was securing the jet fighter bombers — I remember thinking: they’re designed to kill. That’s their mission, that’s why they exist. And when they take off they have this incredible roar, this thunder, if you will. Unbelievable. When you’re working pretty close to them, it’s like, wow. I would look at these planes aesthetically and think: the way their body is formed, the way it’s molded and shaped in metal was beautiful.

NS: Jeff Koons, eat your heart out.

RG: So I was moved by the aesthetics of this war machine. I found them beautiful. Even though I knew they were going off to kill people, burn things… I came away with this double experience of war, of these jet fighter bombers. That they were simultaneously beautiful and killers.

Rupert Garcia - Goliath Over David, or The US Invasion of Grenada, 1987
Mixed media on linen, 50 x 90 in.

NS: Sounds like a dual consciousness — you were conscious of their deadliness, but also their beauty.

RG: That’s right. Later, I would say, I would still hold that but I would add to it that it was immoral.

NS: And you can’t divorce something from its context and say it’s just an aesthetic object. It has a context.

RG: Yes, and the context gives it meaning. So there is poetry and deadliness in these jet fighters.

NS: And that allows you to make this work that is about war; war represents death more than it represents life, in a way. But you’re using color and figuration to animate the work...

RG: It’s animated by figuration, abstraction, color and even the use of grisaille, the use of gray tones and sometimes chromatic neutrals. These gray tones are done in honor of Jose Clemente Orozco. I gave a lecture at Dartmouth about Orozco and myself using gray along with full color. I have always been awestruck by the way he accomplished this. So this is an homage to Orozco.

NS: He’s in your creative DNA.

RG: The second time I went to Mexico, I went to visit our family in Jalostotitlan and Guadalajara. When I was in Guadalajara, my cousin took me to see Orozco’s studio and his murals. Wow! It was too much. He just blew me away. And when I saw his use of gray and color, it was astonishing. I’ve seen these murals in books and lectured about them but when you’re actually in front of them — for me, it was an epiphany about color theory. I still use it to this day.

Rupert Garcia - Hiroshima, 2009
Mixed media on panel, 48 x 96.5 in.

More artwork by Rupert Garcia from Magnolia Editions
Rena Bransten Gallery website


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Artist interview: Faisal Abdu'Allah

Faisal Abdu'Allah - Duppy Conqueror I, 2017
Jacquard tapestry, 117 x 53 in. Edition of 8

The following conversation between Nicholas Stone (NS) and Faisal Abdu’Allah (FAA) took place at Magnolia Editions on October 28, 2017, as Abdu'Allah was finishing up his latest Magnolia publications, the
Duppy Conqueror tapestry triptych as well as printed elements for the mixed-media installation After Kosuth.

NS: Can you describe the context or background that this new work emerged from?

FAA: I had a retrospective in Spain in 2012, The Art of Dislocation, which was 20-25 years of work. That was my first solo show since 2007 or 8. In 2007, I did the Goldfinger piece, which was the work with the British mafia on gold plated surfaces. And I also did in 2008 the short film “The Browning of Britannia,” about the guy who alleges to be the illegitimate son of Edward VIII. So I think a lot of time has passed and I’ve evolved, I’m now in the US, and my work has to in some ways reflect my space. Since I’ve been here, I’ve become more and more conscious of me as a Black body, a politicized body. I’m trying to somehow see the politics through my own selfish British lens of looking at one’s center rather than the construct of race. The more I dug deeper into the history of the US and the history of my own politicized body, I began to think about this notion of a broader section of society being hoodwinked by the minority in society. I don’t think the minority are the people of color: the minority are the people in power. But they’ve hoodwinked them, saying: you are a minority and therefore you think in this way.

So for the last year, I’ve been toying with this inner alter-ego. I’ve come to the conclusion in my own head that this alter-ego is a shape-shifter that has lived throughout the years, even before me. And this shape-shifter cohabitates in different beings — beings of different aesthetics; i don’t want to say race — different aesthetics, different gender orientations, they’re neutral — but that shape-shifter or that spirit is a protagonist. It is a spirit that is there to ensure to people that there is hope and to say: maybe think about the world through this lens.

Faisal Abdu'Allah - Duppy Conqueror II, 2017
Jacquard tapestry, 117 x 53 in. Edition of 8

Music and rhythm play this huge role in my life. So my record collection, my physical vinyl collection, is like my library. It’s the way in which I annotate and keep a record of my own consciousness. When Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz did the Art of Dislocation catalogue, in the back, when he was compiling the book, he said to me: write down for me your life, summarize it year by year. “1991 I was this, 1992 I was this...” When I sent him that, he said: I want you to go back and annotate each year with a song. I was like, wow! That was wonderful; it almost opened up a sort of wonderful Pandora’s box. I was able to share that kind of pathway of my own existence through some kind of audio. And that audio not only navigates the cultural spirit of that time, it also navigates my own emotional space: whether I was more politicized, whether I was romantically involved; it locates me in several different ways.

NS: There’s also an epistemology in the lyrics.

FAA: Absolutely. And my own Jamaican heritage is almost like a stop-off in my journey to Europe. Yes, my ancestors came from Africa and then we went to Jamaica and that’s where my identity was kind of formed, through my parents. And growing up as a young person in London, the way in which my family would stay plugged in and connected to that Jamaican heritage — because they came in the 60s — was every Sunday, my father would go to church, my mom would clean the house and play reggae music. I was the youngest in the family so my sisters were all born in Jamaica but I was born in the UK. My brother was one year older than me, so only me and him were the last two born in the UK. And there’s eight of us in total. Hence why some of the series I do are often editions of eight: to replicate that number in my family. So my dad would be out doing his thing on a Sunday and my mom would be at home cooking and listening to reggae music: Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley...



So all those lyrics were indelibly etched into my head: songs of rebellion, songs of hope, songs of consciousness. at the time, I wasn’t listening to a lot of soul or jazz; it was mostly reggae, and it was songs of rebellion. And I think that ties back in to the whole history of Jamaica with the Maroons and how they rebelled against the English and went up into the mountains, and the English tried to go up there and the Maroons completely fought against them.

When I began to think about my life retrospectively over the last couple of years, that song by Bob Marley kept coming back, the song about being a duppy conqueror. As I was growing up as a kid, the term duppy, we would use it in different contexts. So a duppy is almost like a ghost, an evil spirit in a way. But as a young person growing up in London, we would say, for example, if you’d been duppied, someone’s played a joke on you. You’ve been hoodwinked; someone’s duppied you. And then the duppy conqueror was a way in which Bob Marley was trying to talk about these people who were around him.



NS: Like the Ghostface Killah [member of popular New York rap collective Wu-Tang Clan].

FAA: Exactly. So for me, then I began to think about that spirit I was telling you earlier is residing inside of me, being almost like the duppy conqueror. The spirit that manifests in form, in flesh, that is able to tell people in the world: Hey, you need to really kind of wake up. And almost like: stay woke. If you think about Childish Gambino’s song "Redbone," or the film "Get Out" — the way in which that movie is almost like a manifestation, like the powers that be are telling you exactly how much you’ve been hypnotized and hoodwinked. And in particular that movie talked directly to the black community. The hidden messages that are in there — I sat down to watch it and I was ticking all these boxes. Even the scene where he’s chained to the chair and he wakes up and he’s pulling cotton out of the chair. People need to wake up! Or in the beginning when he’s walking on the street and there’s a song [“Redbone”] playing in the background and it says, Stay woke or they’ll catch you sleeping.



Even the part where he’s sitting in the woman’s house and she’s talking to him, she’s hypnotizing him with the teacup — I think the messages in there are so explicit that if you don’t understand that film, you’re definitely hypnotized. You’re in the ninety percent. Because I say five percent know what’s going on and are trying to do shit to change it — and I’m talking about all walks of life — while another five percent know, and won’t do shit because they’re too scared it’s going to affect their income, their job, or their position in life. The other ninety percent, they just don’t know. They’re zombies. They’re walking around like, ‘yeah, I told you so’ and ‘yeah, I’m voting for this person,’ or ‘yeah, regardless of all the evidence, we have to believe them.’ So duppy conqueror is that alter ego becoming physical. And it’s a triptych, so in some ways it ties in with that whole idea of the trinity or the three wise men. So there’s three iterations of the Duppy Conqueror. And it will be shown in tandem with the Last Supper tapestries.

Faisal Abdu'Allah - The Last Supper I, 2012
Jacquard tapestry, 117 x 148 in. Edition of 3

The interesting thing about the Last Supper tapestries is that that was almost like the beginning of the awakening of a higher consciousness — but the art world thought that I was interpreting the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. I’m like... No! Because the entire series — even in the ones that were printed here, the Revelations — there’s a figure standing there holding an ankh. So that figure is holding an ankh and there’s a reference to a supposed Christ-like figure — how can it be connected to Christianity? It wasn’t on the map. They just assumed that I was interpreting da Vinci’s Last Supper. And I said no, I’m actually talking about the origins of Christianity coming out of Egypt, and it being co-opted by Europeans. Your average theologian of Christianity says: yeah, Christianity started in Rome or it started in Greece. They’ll never ever say Christianity started in Africa. They’ll never say it. It just doesn’t make any sense.


Faisal Abdu'Allah - Revelations: Ascension, 2010/1996
Pigmented inkjet print, 57 x 45 in. Edition of 8

That’s what I was trying to say to the audience in 1996. I even gave a talk in Switzerland [see YouTube link below for full video of this talk] with Andres Serrano and another artist about this book that was just released called The Christ in Contemporary Photography. They were asking me about references to Christianity in the work. And I was like, no! It’s always been about — it’s called The Book of Coming Forth by Day and Night, but it’s also commonly known as The Book of the Dead. I’m saying these works are entirely based around that. And the audience looked at me like: what is he talking about? At the very end this lady came up to me — she was from Switzerland — and she said, Faisal, I get it. And do you realize that everyone in the audience does not understand this? Even after I explained it, they’re like, is he making this stuff up? And we know artists are known to do that — they find a little piece of something and they run with it as their own truth.



For me, it’s like looking at some of those fundamental spaces of knowledge, where because it gets repeated, it becomes a truth. It’s like usage in the Oxford dictionary. My colleague who is one of the head writers there says: Faisal, every week we get new terms coming to us for the Oxford English Dictionary and they only make it into the book through usage. If we find that there’s enough evidence that there’s enough usage, then it becomes an official word. Like "bling." We always used "bling" on the street; all of a sudden years ago, it makes the OED and it finds its way into popular culture. We were using it on the street for years, d’you know what I mean? So that’s the starting point of how this duppy conqueror started coming into existence.

In that show, there’s a lot of objects that make the show, and I’m making a triptych called After Kosuth. It’s based on a Joseph Kosuth piece called One and Three Chairs. It’s a writing about a chair, a photograph of a chair, and there’s a physical chair. So this is After Kosuth, and it’s based on the concept of One and Three Chairs. So what it is is a drawing of me, done by a colleague, that I translated into an etching. It was important to me that she did the drawing while observing me, so it’s a translation of me as a physical entity, translating it through the gesture. And it’s important that that gesture was fragmented. So there’s a drawing of me bearded; there’s a photograph of me, almost half-bearded; and there’s going to be a gold-plated head, a physical bust of me. So there’s going to be me as a drawing, me as a photograph, and me as a three-dimensional, gold-plated bust.

Joseph Kosuth - One and Three Chairs, 1965
Wood folding chair, mounted photograph of a chair, and mounted photographic enlargement of the dictionary definition of "chair"
Chair 32 3/8 x 14 7/8 x 20 7/8 in., photographic panel 36 x 24 1/8 in., text panel 24 x 30 in.
image c/o MoMA

NS: And when you say it was important that the gesture be fragmented, do you mean the actual lines that she’s using?

FAA: Yeah, the cross-hatching. She said, well why don’t you draw it? And I said no, I wanted to be observed. Rather than me observing myself. I trained through portraiture; I know that person needed to interpret me through the gesture of touch. And then I was photographed by somebody else, another photographer. And then the bust, the head, was actually made by the artist that drew me.

NS: It was important to use a technology that isn’t a lens, for example — you mean the word ‘gesture’ literally, as in you wanted a hand to be making movements.

FAA: Yeah, I like to think of the work through gesture, through touch or interface rather than saying: photo etching, photograph — because for me, gesture is really, really important.

NS: It’s not about focusing on the device.

FAA: Exactly. And that is fundamentally grounded in my other practice as a barber. So I’m laying on hands, touching somebody. And I’m cutting away these fragments of somebody’s DNA to create another identity, another ego that exists for three or four weeks or just for the moment. They come in, they go through a level of transformation; they sit in that space and I see them go through these different stages. They come in as one entity; a conversation takes place; and they leave a completely different being. And I’m not saying that these works are talking about my transformation, but they’re talking about the different iterations that I’ve had to go through to this point. And in that space also I’m putting a barber chair; I’m having a barber chair gold plated in 24 karat gold right now. So right now they’ve pulled it apart, it’s a normal barber chair but it’s going to be plated in 24 karat gold. And I’m having a barber clippers made in 24 karat gold as well. So it’s looking at the idea of this space — it’s almost like all the work goes back to this one place, this seated area, this throne. I call it the informal university.

That’s where I started as a kid; in the seventies, young black people weren’t given money by the government to open up barber shops. So I didn’t go to barber shops as a young kid — as a young, five, six year old kid with my dad, we went to this person’s house. We’d sit in his house and he had a barber chair in his house. And all the men from Jamaica that came over in the sixties were in the back playing dominoes, smoking cigarettes, drinking Carlsberg. And I would sit there as a kid and wait for my haircut. And they’re talking about, yeah, Jamaica was like this, like that. So I’m sitting there hearing these stories of this place, as a five year old kid, and I begin to understand this notion of protest — of how they were telling stories of race in London in the seventies. As I’m growing up, they said, yeah I went to this shop and a couple of skinheads chased me out of the shop so we had to do this and do that. And I’m listening to all this stuff and I’m like: skinheads? What is that? Why were they chasing you? In my head, I didn’t realize that actually there were some people who didn’t like you because of the way you looked. So you begin to understand your body as a politicized body. As I sat in that chair and grew as a young person, this barber was there laying on hands, cutting my hair at the time, I was being politicized by the stuff they were saying around me and listening to Bunny Wailer, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh.

NS: So this transformation’s happening to you on all these levels, not just a physical or visual level.

FAA: Exactly, so that chair is very symbolic of my own evolution as a creative person.

NS: And these are all a part of the same work?


FAA: Yes and in some ways, the Kosuth piece — because it was just a chair, a generic chair — the fact that I’m creating this barber chair, the chair for me is a very symbolic structure. The way Kosuth presented different iterations of this chair, from the written word to its physicality, whatever thought process that he had, for me, I want to reference that through my own physicality.

NS: You mentioned that a lot of this reflection has come out of being in the US, seeing yourself through the fog of contemporary politics here. How long have you been staying in the US and where have you been staying?


FAA: So I first came in 1989, I went to Boston. I was at Boston, Massachusetts College of Art for a whole semester. That was my first introduction to the US and it was a baptism by fire. I got there and people were like, this guy from England’s come in, he’s gonna be here for a semester. So I turn up and they’re like, ‘so are you the guy from London?’ I was like yeah. ‘You’re from London?’ Yeah. And they said to me, ‘Are there black people in London?’ I said, I think so…

NS: ‘No, I was the only one...’

FAA: I’m the only one, so now there’s minus one. But that was exotic for them. So what happened is I was having dinner with them or lunch with them and one day this lady called me over and she says ‘English’ — they never called me by my name, they just called me English — ‘do you know about the Harlem Renaissance?’ And I was like, no. I’m in my first year, undergrad, art school — we’re learning about the Romanticists, we’re learning about the Fauvists, we’re learning about every -ism that you could imagine.

Abdu'Allah's 2012 tapestry The Last Supper I is installed at Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno, Canary Islands, 2012; photo by Era Farnsworth.

NS: And of course it’s all Eurocentric.

FAA: It’s all Eurocentric and we aren’t even thinking about musicians as playing a part in the vernacular of art. So she gave me this book and that was it. Everything kind of opened up. And what’s interesting about these works — again, this transformative thing. I went to the US; I was born with the name Paul Duffus. I was born as Paul Duffus. I went to the US and I was like, no, this is kind of unbelievable. I learned about the Harlem Renaissance and I started to listen to Martin Luther King, listening to Malcolm X. And when you’re young, you’re an open book, aren’t you? You’re a sponge, you’re taking in all this information. And then Malcolm X was saying, your name is not even African. I was like, what? I did a little research on my name Paul Duffus and Duffus is a Scottish name. I checked out the history and realized that there were some people that lived in Scotland, in Edinburgh, and then they came to Jamaica, they owned plantations. I said: wow, no, I need to get rid of that name. I have to get short of that name. That name doesn’t mean anything to me. And that was my first step or first embodiment of what I think of as consciousness. And you know, the name that was given to me, it wasn’t a name that was going to help me find my history – but I think it allowed me then to write my own book, to write my own testimony. And the day I made that transition to Faisal Abdu’Allah — Faisal means judge, or one who can distinguish between truth and falsehood, servant of the most high. That’s what it was.

Back then I had a kind of religious mind; three years after that, I made the Last Supper series. So I was looking at tearing up religious icons and placing different icons in the image, or in the public space. And it wasn’t about trying to show an alternative, it was like, no, this is what’s happening. This is the world according to me. And I think as I got older, I began to look at other themes and other realities. And I felt like all the work I’ve made has been selfishly autobiographical, but has never ever shown me in it. I’ve always been in the work, I’ve always been present, but now I realize it wasn’t actually me making these works, it was the duppy conqueror. So that came alive when I transformed — it was as if Paul Duffus died and this spirit resurrected inside of me. Some say a duppy is like a disagreeable spirit — but sometimes, being disagreeable isn’t a bad thing. Because you can take on stuff.

Faisal Abdu'Allah - Duppy Conqueror III, 2017
Jacquard tapestry, 117 x 53 in. Edition of 8

NS: Like the gadfly.

FAA: Yeah. Because I think human beings by their very nature are disagreeable. By our nature we are disagreeable. And we do our best to be nice.

NS: Conflict is more of a natural state than harmony?

FAA: Thank you. So when we’re walking down the street, we only say good morning because we’ve been told, hey, if you don’t say good morning, that’s rude. If I had my own way, I’d be in the zone. I’d be walking past everyone. But we have to make an effort to think about being nice — I think, anyway.

So that’s some of the story of how this evolution took place. Being in the US in 1989, I came back as a completely different person and my whole work transformed. The first piece I made was an installation for my undergrad show, and I had what I’d called the historical orators — I had all these photographic screen prints of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, all along a corridor. On the opposite side I had Ice Cube, I had A Tribe Called Quest, I had all these images I had appropriated. So I was looking at the historical orators of consciousness, versus the modern-day orators of consciousness through music. Then I left the Saint Martins school of art and went to Royal College and pushed further with the idea of looking at orators. Then I made the Uncle Sam piece [I Wanna Kill Sam...], which was printed here at Magnolia on aluminum. These were modern-day rappers that I knew, so I was no longer using found images; I was making my own images. That was the first time I took my own images. And some of them that were in I Wanna Kill Sam were the models in The Last Supper as well. I was using the same subjects because we thought the same, we read the same kind of books, we felt the same way about our own history.

Faisal Abdu'Allah - I Wanna Kill Sam 'Cause He Ain't My Motherfucking Uncle, 2010/1993
Acrylic on aluminum, 78 x 39 in. Edition of 3

The more and more I began to go back and forth to the US — I went to Houston, Texas and did the Project Row House residency, did a British art show at the Studio Museum in Harlem, I was a visiting professor at Stanford — that’s where I first found out about Magnolia. As I was here, you can’t help but look at stuff in the media, you can’t help but read what scholars write about Darby English and people like Fred Wilson, and you look at the artworks of people that look like you. The great thing about the US is that there are more people who look like me that are active in the arts. So that’s a great thing for me to research. Because I’m already researching everybody else, but my professors were not telling me, hey, you need to look at these. So I’m looking at these works by all these practitioners and I notice there was a preoccupation with race. And what I worked out was that some of these artists, scholars, and filmmakers — their work is so intensely about race that it’s not about anything else. For example, three or four years ago when they had all these nominations for the Oscars and there were a couple of black films in that Oscar nomination pool — every single one was about race. Not a single one was about love, happiness, distraction, magic, make-believe. A preoccupation with race. And I’m pretty sure now if I was to ask you to name me some prominent African-American artisans, whoever they are, I’m sure their work is grounded in race. So for me it was about, what is the preoccupation with it? And the more I’ve been here, now that I’ve been here since 2013, I’m like wow, this is a serious lens.

NS: I’m wondering in particular if you’ve been here since November/January, since the election?

FAA: Yes, I’m in Wisconsin. And Wisconsin is supposed to be one of the most liberal places in America...

NS: How’s that working out for you?

FAA: Well, Madison is essentially a student population; it’s a college town, it has forty thousand students. And most of the people there, they’re all liberal. So most of the people I meet, yeah, they don’t like Trump, everyone’s got healthcare — it’s a bubble. But I know it’s not indicative of the United States of America. And even when I was living in the Bay Area, when I was at Stanford, there was a similar intellectual discourse where people were smart so you’re always going to be ok. But if you go a few miles outside of Madison to places like Oshkosh, people are looking at you like, who’s this person? And I do understand that the rest of the United States of America is not like that. And what really made me concerned is that some of the scholars and artisans are investing so much in the scholarship of blackness that I think in some ways they’re losing themselves. And they’re losing the power of fun. And wonder. And magic. And I wonder — my question is, then, who is your scholarship for? Is your scholarship for the community that you think doesn’t understand you? Because by my measure, they ain’t reading it. Because if shit’s getting worse and we’re saying, yeah there was the civil rights movement and now there’s equality — somehow it looks like issues of race and identity and the gap between rich and poor, the class system, it’s just getting worse. So obviously, they’re not reading your scholarship.

So for me, it’s about going back to that young kid listening to Bob Marley. For me it’s about being an activist, which is about how I do my small piece in awakening the consciousness of everybody. So some of the things that duppy conqueror is talking about, for example; the first things are monuments. I don’t give a shit about monuments. It’s bullshit. Because the monuments were there when Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson — when they were all walking, they were walking past the monuments. It didn’t mean shit then. All of a sudden, now we need to take them down? Fine. I say — not me, duppy conqueror says, make counter-monuments. So give me twenty million and for every monument that we see, I’ll make a counter-monument. The monument can stay; the monument must be a reminder. Of your bullshit!

Faisal Abdu'Allah - The Last Supper I, 2010/1996
Pigmented inkjet print, 59 x 72.5 in. Edition of 3

My colleague at Wisconsin, he’s Native American, and he took us into the Memorial Union, which is a beautiful building, the oldest building on campus. He walked us in and gave us a tour and he said, see the roof? There’s a fresco up there. We looked up there and there’s a painting of Native Americans like they’re sitting in heaven. He said, you see that painting? They were all over the ceiling. He said, it’s inaccurate. When they refurbished this building, they called in all the Native American community in Wisconsin — because right around Madison it was all Native American land. And they ran them off the land and built the university on Native American grounds. And they said, should we remove this? And the Native Americans said, no, leave it — so the public and the young population can see the bullshit painted about us, how inaccurate this stuff was. So you look at it and go, wow, that was their scholarship? What does that scholarship amount to? It amounts to nothing. The way in which they completely plagiarized it and created a false identity for a community. So duppy conqueror says hey, the issue is not necessarily about monuments. The issue is, how do we get a better welfare system for the have-nots? How do you put money in their pockets? How is it that when I’m driving through Oakland, I go under them bridges and I see people living in them tents? This is a country where people can achieve; why are people so into themselves and into their watches and into their beautiful homes? This should not be happening. So how do we create another layer of awareness?

And if we remove the monuments, who gets the jobs to remove the monuments? The same people that they’re fighting against. Because the communities of color are not going to be employed to remove those monuments and smelt them. So it’s lose, lose, lose all the way. And even the issue of kneeling during the ceremony or the flag — duppy conqueror says this again is another distraction. Because this is not about the flag. This is not about these NFL players. This is truly about the police getting a payout from our tax dollars. In Wisconsin alone, they’ve paid $7 million to two families. The police need to be made more accountable when they pull a firearm. If you pull a firearm, you lose your pension. Then they’ll pull out tasers, because they’re thinking long term. So for me, I’m thinking: how can we create a higher level of consciousness among our audience? So they can realize that race is just this construct, we’ve just been bamboozled by this whole idea that just because one has a different layer of melanin, their social outcomes are going to be completely different.

Faisal Abdu'Allah - Family Ties, 2012
pigmented inkjet print on photo rag paper, 40 x 76 in. Edition of 8

And it’s me being in the US, looking at the media, how it functions and seeing the same event being discussed across three different networks and seeing three different versions of the same thing. So Fox says this, CNN says this— one event could be interpreted in a completely different way by two different stations for their own game. And the public then decides on their buy-in. No, I agree with Fox; no, I agree with CNN. It’s really fascinating. And how they try to co-opt communities by bringing in people that those communities may recognize. So I think they’re being really smart in how they try to massage people into thinking in a particular way. That’s how I’m looking at my position here in the US and trying to respond to the environment I’m currently in, rather than saying: I’m going to keep making the stuff that I’ve got in my sketchbook from London and keep making it here. I’d be bonkers to do something like that. And it took me a while to get to this point, because it’s been three years of trying to work stuff out: is it this? Is it that? No, is it — all of sudden it came to me one day; the spirit of the duppy conqueror just rose like a phoenix, and I thought: now is the time for me to kind of appear in the work, so that’s where I am now.


Work by Faisal Abdu'Allah at Magnolia Editions