Meet the Black Arts Shaping Our Youth’s Love of Self

Barbershops are often referred to as the Black man’s country club. Centrally located in most cities, the shops have long played a pivotal role in both the economic and cultural development in African American communities. Many may even argue that the barbershop has reinforced Black male identity in America.

That’s how Faisal Abdu’Allah sees is. Born to Jamaican immigrants who moved to Britain in the 1960s, the University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, hung around his neighborhood barbershop.  It was like a second home, a town hall, a place of refuge and a place of healing. 

Barbering has been the backbone of everything he’s done in life. Getting a good education became equally important. Abdu’Allah knew how powerful knowledge is.

Combining the worlds of academia and the barbershop profession, Abdu’Allah shares stories of his life through art and photography. He eloquently does so as he addresses questions of race, identity, privilege, and culture.

And, just like the Black barbershops served as a place of commune and empowerment for African American men, Abdu’Allah now uses an art studio on UW-Madison’s campus as a safe haven for youth of color do develop confidence being in their own skin, and spiritually indulged in self.

Abdu’Allah is an associate professor of art and faculty director of UW-Madison’s Creative Arts Community, The Studio. He graduated from the Royal College of Art in London and completed his Ph.D. in 2012 at the University of East London. His work has been exhibited widely, including at the 55th Venice Biennale, Centro Atlantico de Arte Moderno in Gran Canaria, National Portrait Gallery and Whitechapel Gallery, British Film Institute Gallery, Serpentine Gallery, the Chisenhale Gallery in London, and Studio Museum Harlem.

He is the brains behind an art exhibit on display at the Overture Center for the Arts over the holiday titled Urban Bubble. The art show is the culmination of conversations and productions that celebrate identity, excellence and the power within each individual.

Abdu’Allah took a moment to share more about his life and how the creative process of art therapy provides healing and hope among African Americans.

UMOJA: How did you get your start in creating art? 

Faisal: I was always good, academically. For me, the idea of finding your equilibrium makes you feel at one. I guess it was in my art class. I could completely get lost. I can consume myself in magic and wonder. And once you have that, you have infinite possibilities. The ability to paint is to be able to fly. To be half human, half animal. 

UMOJA: When was your first exhibition?

Faisal: My first exhibition was at a summer fair. I created a four-color screenplay. It was a portrait of a model I drew and it was accepted into the fair. My painting was placed on the wall amongst other established artists. I was 16 at the time.

UMOJA: When did you discover that creating art was what you were called to do?

Faisal: At the summer fair, this guy comes up to me and ask, “Is that your artwork there?” I said yes. “So are you going to school?” My dad wanted me to go to law school or to become a surgeon. That was the first point of reflection for me. The second was when my art teacher said to me, “I guess you’re going to apply for art school and get your degree.” I asked myself how do these totally different things say the same thing? To hear something twice. You think first time, maybe. Second time, I need to act on this. I began to actually believe I can have a career in this field. And when I was applying for my degree, my dad and cousin walked me to the phone to call the schools for medicine. I didn’t get an answer. I called the schools for law. And I still didn’t receive an answer. When they left the room, I called the art school. And on the first try, I got an answer. That was the third time. I got my sign.

 UMOJA: What brought you to the U.S.? 

Faisal: The second year of my degree, I went to the U.S. as part of an exchange program. I went to Boston, Massachusetts. When I finished my degree in 1993, I returned to the U.K. and started making my work as an artist. The only way a person of color could make a living as an artist in the U.K. is in education. The galleries don’t really give them an opportunity. But, I was fortunate. I had major shows in all the major institutions in the U.K. I returned to the U.S in 2013 as a visiting artist. Then I got an email in 2014 inviting me to apply for a job at the University of Wisconsin. 

UMOJA: Why did you decide to guide the youth as opposed to adults?

Faisal: Artists in the U.K. earn an income through education, exhibition, or maybe through your work, if you’re lucky. And there is an educational component. This is where they would want the public to work with the artist about what was displayed in the show. The purpose of education projects is to reach out to communities that they are intended to reach. And in these instances, an artist may be asked if they can be involved in a project with kids that are troubled. That’s how I got my start, working with kids. I was young when I first did that. I’d go in and work with them. It would be three-day workshops. And we’ll work on a project. Over the years I became good at it. I realized how young people were able to find a voice through art. They’d come at the beginning thinking one way, then in the end, thinking another. 

UMOJA: What is the purpose of the Urban Bubble? 

Faisal: This is the 16th year that I have been working with young kids. Along with a dear friend of mine, we’ve been working with kids every semester. Then we would have an exhibition. We would work with kids in the Criminal Justice System. The goal is to allow young people to be better equipped. To understand images. To be able to interpret. To give them “clean eyes”. So that they are able to see things fresh and as they are. Allow them a platform to be critical. To express themselves. To get into their heads. Allowing them to think. And with their paintings, become superhuman. To soar. To create magic and wonder. 

UMOJA: Do you have any favorite quotes you’d like to share with us?

Faisal: The ends you serve that are selfish will take you no further than yourself; but the ends you serve that are for all, in common, will take you even into eternity. That’s by Marcus Garvey.