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