Faisal Abdu'Allah: The Chair

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Faisal Abdu’Allah is a British-born, Wisconsin-based artist and barber, and his exhibition features work that looks at the act of barbering and its relationship to Black identity. It includes photographs in a variety of formats, including tintypes showing the tools of the trade (electric clippers, attachments, and scissors), and images of Malcolm X in a series of screen prints engaging the history of the Black Power movement and issues of racial pride and empowerment.   

In Hair Traits (2016-present), Abdu’Allah’s hair is used to create the tonal range in large portraits on birch plywood, featuring young men who look at the camera with varying degrees of confidence. He has said, “Essentially, my DNA is tied/inculcated in their image. Our hair carries a trace of who we are, and it is extremely political. In the history of post-colonialism, the straighter your hair was, the higher up on the chain of respect you were.” 

In The Barber’s Chair (2017), the artist takes a utilitarian seat where the client sits to receive the barber’s skills and transforms it into a royal throne with the addition of tufted black leather and gold plating. This arguably recalls the bling associated with rap and hip-hop musicians. By elevating the status of the chair, he celebrates the Black barbershop and its role in the dissemination of knowledge about social and political histories.  

In Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America, author Quincy T. Mills writes about the activist and organizer Kwame Ture (born Stokely Standiford Churchill Carmichael): “It was in a Harlem barbershop, and not a school or church, where he learned of the Brown* decision and the Emmett Till lynching.” 

In association with the exhibition, Abdu’Allah will discuss his work as one of this year’s speakers in the Robert C. May Photography Lecture Series and will provide one free haircut to a willing museum guest in a Kentucky version of his Live Salon performances (2006-present), during which he cuts hair and engages in conversation about selfhood and society. 

*Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case in which the justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. The decision was a cornerstone of the civil rights movement and helped establish the precedent that “separate-but-equal” education and other services were not, in fact, equal at all. 

IMAGE: Faisal Abdu’Allah, Barber Chair, 2021, (detail), antique barber chair with leather and gold plating. Courtesy of the artist.

Created 04/21/2023
Last Updated 11/03/2023