“There’s an interesting article about Noble Peace Prize winners and that 80 percent of them had arts backgrounds,” says Faisal Abdu’Allah, the Arts Institute and the Department of Art History’s Spring 2013 Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I always say to students when I start my lectures that artists are the shapers of social consciousness — whether we like it or not. We design the cars that we drive in that take us here, the clothes that we wear, [and] the buildings we go in.”
Abdu’Allah is a senior lecturer in Fine Arts at the University of East London and an internationally acclaimed artist whose iconographic images of power, race, masculinity, violence, and faith challenge the values and ideologies society attaches to those im- ages. Through mixed combinations of photography, digital media, printmaking, installation, and performance, Abdu’Allah looks to create spaces that speak the unspoken and provoke the mind to challenge its comfort level and judgment calls in an urban environment.
Abdu’Allah has been in Madison for about a month and a half. While in residence, he is teaching “FauHaus: Bodies, Minds, Senses, and the Arts” with Art History Professor Henry Drewal. This art laboratory is composed of student practitioners from visual arts, performance, art history, and visual culture. Referencing the legendary Bauhaus — a space where multiple disciplines were encouraged to flourish side by side — FauHaus (F for Faisal, H for Henry, and Haus for UW-Madison) is grounded in Drewal’s theory of "sensiotics," which considers the crucial role of the senses in understanding arts and culture.
“I was keen to explore the idea that interdisciplinary activities can take place under canvas umbrella. It’s a class that is based upon theory and practice — and what binds the theory and the practice is this issue called the senses,” Abdu’Allah tells The Madison Times in an interview in Lathrop Hall on the UW-Madison campus. “The senses are the keys in how we make work, how we look at ideas, and how we live our lives. My work is built upon sensiotics.”
FauHaus is exploring the sensory and cognitive engagements of the human body-mind over 15 weeks. A roster of internationally renowned visitors, including award-winning artists and actors, esteemed scholars, and museum curators from world-class institutions, are bringing diverse viewpoints to the FauHaus seminar and beyond through a series free public presentations. [See sidebar at right.]
“The classes will happen on a Tuesday, and the discussions will happen on a Wednesday,” Abdu’Allah says. “The ambition of this FauHaus project is that there will be an outcome in the end. It’s not about [the students] giving me essays, it’s about them creating a body of work that has a collective consciousness and talks about issues, events, and problems or celebrates Madison and it involves the community.”
Abdu’Allah remembers his first week of office hours in Madison as being pretty quiet. “The first week, I had nobody come in … the second week I had two [students]; the third week three and yesterday it was like five!,” Abdu’Allah says. “ I think they now are feeling challenged and have a sense of ownership of the project. There is a great awareness. What is even nicer is that there are students who aren’t even in my class who are hearing about this and asking if they can be a part of it. The response, so far, has been incredible.
“The thing I like the most about it is the ability to engage these young minds that are not in arts practice and make them believe that there isn’t necessarily a science to it — one doesn’t have to be the greatest still-life draft person to qualify what they do. I keep telling them that it’s all about thinking, making, dissemination, and delivery,” he continues. “These simple processes that I’ve gone through with them have not discriminated against anybody because they couldn’t draw very well or because they couldn’t photograph very well. These were simple exercises that they could articulate their sensibilities. The nice thing is that I get them to walk very slowly through it. They’re not sure where they are going… but I know where they are going.”
Born in London to Jamaican parents, Abdu'Allah grew up in Harlesden, an area in the northwest London Borough of Brent. His love affair with art began early.
“Art was a way for me to play with elements that other classes wouldn’t allow me to. I could paint about my dreams; I could paint to music. For some reason, my art teacher thought that I could apply to art school. I said, ‘What do you mean ‘art school’?’” Abdu'Allah remembers. “My parents are from Jamaica and came to London and were doing menial work. They experienced quite a bit of racism. All they wanted was for their children to go to school and become doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. When I brought the news to them that I wanted to go to art school, my dad looked at me and laughed and walked me to the phone and said, ‘You ring this King’s College and you’re going to apply and become a pediatrician.”
Abdu'Allah called King’s College that summer and nobody answered the phone. “I then rang Harrow School of Art and they picked up and I got an application,” he says.
The rest was history, as they say. From Harrow School of Art, he went to Central St Martins and then to Royal College of Art.
“All my childhood I drew. And drawing was a means of escapism … coming from a large family it was a way to create space. So, I’d be in the kitchen and doing drawings on the table and nobody would come near me ... it was a way to create space,” Abdu'Allah says. “I shared a room with my brother. Drawing was a way to escape and a way to create a beautiful space around me.”
It was a long uphill struggle to become the fantastic artist he is today. His art teacher when he was a teenager was a big inspiration to get him started on his path. “I just thought that art wasn’t for people who looked like me,” Abdu'Allah says. “My art teacher was a great guy, though. He took me to the National Portrait Gallery. The minute I walked into this gallery it all clicked. I felt like I was at home and that I had arrived. And at that young, naïve age, I didn’t think anything about class or race. I just thought, ‘This is a place that hangs some really nice paintings. I can do this. And I understand it.’ I never looked back from there.”
After studying at Central St Martins and the Royal College of Art, Abdu'Allah made a living with his own barbershop whilst working as an artist and exhibiting internationally. After graduating, he quickly established himself as an artist interested in confrontation and displacement with his 1993 debut exhibition ‘I Wanna Kill Sam…’ He has received several international art awards for his provocative installation pieces.
“What is great now is that a lot of artists like myself have had the benefit of a great education and these great experiences and almost feel as if it is part of my duty to somehow disseminate some of that back,” Abdu'Allah says.
“I would love to see a student or two decide that they would make a go at being an artist — try to make a living doing it,” adds Abdu’Allah. “There are so many misconceptions about how one makes a living — like you make an image, you put it on a wall, you call a white guy in a suit who will come and sell it for you for $50,000 and you get half of that.
“But, I’m like, “Nooooo,’” Abdu'Allah continues with a smile. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I have a wife, a family, kids, and a home. I’ve done this. I’ve never had a full-time job in my life.”
More and more people, Abdu'Allah says, need to recognize the amazing power of art.
“The whole notion about arts practice is a part of everyday life. I think that sometimes in society it’s the first thing to suffer when they make cuts,” Abdu'Allah says. “In London, for example, they are trying to remove it from the curriculum for teaching kids … but they don’t realize the benefit that it has. There was a study done in London a few years ago that said that those young people who did art-based degrees had the best key skills. So when they were in offices they could solve problems and think on their feet. There was something about having that type of mind that could work in multiple ways that was key.”
Abdu'Allah says that what he is trying to do is to position the artwork in three communities. “Yes, we’ll have the work shown around the Chazen [Museum] and the Chazen is an erudite audience — they speak the language and it’s a part of their showcase,” he says. “Then you have students who are first time to the university who come from a community where they are straddling two worlds. I experienced that when I was at art school. I was the first at the university for my family.
“Then you have a community who doesn’t know anything about the university or the art space,” he adds. “The challenge of our group is to find a way of working where we can engage these three groups. That’s a really important thing for FauHaus when we have the final showcase of the work that the students have done.
“My hope is that FauHaus produces a really compelling piece of work that makes a mark in the sand in Madison and people will say, ‘Yeah, last year, remember this guy who came and worked with these students at UW and they did this amazing thing together?””
Most importantly, Abdu'Allah’s goal is to do it again. “But do it twice as big,” he says. “Hopefully, take one or two students from Stanford, one or two students from UW, and make them lead on it. So, I would just oversee it. Let them demonstrate what I’ve taught them and let them pass it on to other people. I think it’s nice when you talk to somebody of your own generation and your own background and your own ideologies. I don’t think there’s enough of that.
“FauHaus will be something that carries on,” he adds. “We’re going to keep working on this concept of the Sensiotics. That’s the ambition. For it to continue to grow and for some of the younger people to be the leaders.”
For more information about Faisal Abdu'Allah or FauHaus, visit www.arts.wisc.edu/artsinstitute/IAR/ faisal/