Artist who is a cut above

Faisal Abdu'Allah combines his work as a barber in Harlesden with a career in the art world. Michael Edmands talked to him

Saturday June 30, 2001
The Guardian

A barber from north London catapulted into the higher echelons of the capital's art world? Faisal Abdu'Allah's uncompromising photos, prints and installations addressing black cultural identity are the highlight of the National Maritime Museum's new dedicated art gallery, where he is artist in residence - but he's not giving up his barber's chair in Harlesden for now.

A Sea of Faces, which mixes naval portraiture and contemporary art, is the opening event at the NMM's new gallery in the Queen's House. Museum director Roy Clare has added work by Faisal to the exhibition to attract the public with what he calls the "wow factor".

Known for his work on the iconography of power, Faisal's An Affair of Honour was inspired by the South Sea Company's participation in the slave trade.

Faisal was born at London's Park Royal Hospital in 1969, although his name was Paul Duffus before he converted to Islam. His father, who had left Jamaica three years earlier, worked through to retirement at the Heinz factory and is now in the church ministry. Young Paul attended Willesden High School, which boasted such sporting luminaries as Chris Lewis and Phil de Freitas among its body, but Faisal favoured art from an early age.

"My father wanted me to be a doctor and even bought the books. So to keep dad happy I called up the college but no one answered the phone."

He was at a crossroads and his teacher urged him to try for an arts foundation. "I put in applications for various art schools and got accepted by one, the Harrow School of Art, on the first day," he says.

At the age of 16, he had set out a series of goals that included going to Harrow, then Central St Martin's followed by the Royal College of Art. "Believe it or not, the dream came true."

He submitted a screen print to the Brent Show and was accepted. "At that time, I wanted to be a graphic designer because that was where the money was. But my teacher at Harrow, Sue Rosso, everyone's idea of an artist, told me I would be wasted as a graphic designer and urged me to go for a BA in fine art," he says.

While at St Martin's, Faisal was sent on a student exchange to Massachusetts College of Art. It turned out to be a sea change. While in Boston, he got interested in hair. He would stop young men and ask them where they got their hair cut.

"I went to a barber one of them recommended but didn't think much of the job. When I got back to the student residence I found one of the students cutting his own hair and doing a good job. The application didn't seem a lot different from what I was learning, almost like drawing." So he began to cut hair.

He also became quite an admirer of a charismatic voice on the radio, which he was told by another student belonged to Louis Farrakhan. "I knew nothing about black culture," he says, "but the student suggested that we meet him and the next thing I know, a great limousine had turned up with two big minder types and off we went to the mosque.