British-born artist Faisal Abdu’Allah’s show “DARK MATTER” opens in Madison this weekend, featuring a gilded barber’s chair, several portrait series and a thought-provoking conceptual work that separates viewers by the color of their eyes.
The opening reception is set for Friday night in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s main galleries on the second floor, and the artist is set to speak starting at 6:30 p.m.
Meanwhile, in the lower level galleries, the 2022 Triennial “Ain’t I A Woman?” remains on display through Oct. 9. That exhibition has been a fraught one, involving damaged artwork and open letters criticizing museum leadership. Many artists have removed their work from the show. On Thursday, a group from UW joined artists and others calling for the director’s resignation.
For its part, the museum released a statement earlier this week, saying it will hire a “visual anthropologist in residence” to look into “incidents that occurred” during the Triennial. That person, the museum wrote, will be “looking toward the future and exploring ways to address institutional racism within MMoCA and root causes of this particular conflict,” including those that “predate a majority of members of the current board and staff.”
Marni McEntee, the museum’s director of communications, declined to elaborate further.
The work is the statement
Abdu’Allah has been teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 2014, and is currently a professor of printmaking and the Chazen Family Distinguished Chair in Art. He’s aware of the upheaval in the local art community, and said he’s been asked to make a statement about the Triennial conflict.
But he doesn’t want to do that directly. To complete this show, Abdu’Allah worked with assistant curator Elizabeth Shoshany Anderson, museum director Christina Brungardt and deputy director Kent Michael Smith.
“There’s a lot of things being said … (by people who) don’t have the actual information,” he said. “Most of that cannot be shared because of sensitivity.
“Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. A lot of people are working on their opinions and emotions, and that can be a dangerous thing.”
Abdu’Allah would prefer that people reference his work to see where he stands.
“If they want to know what the statement is, go see ‘Blu³eprint,’” he said, referencing a sculpture installed last winter on State Street outside MMoCA. Abdu’Allah refers to this as a “counter-monument.”
“Limestone comes out of the ground soft, and over time it hardens,” he said. “I hope we embrace the aesthetics of the piece and not the physicality of the piece. The lesson in ‘Blu³eprint’ is about our shared humanity … if we don’t know (how) to understand somebody else’s position, I think we’ve lost it.”
Going back to his roots
“Shared humanity” is a recurring theme for Abdu’Allah, who worked with former MMoCA curator Leah Kolb on this exhibition. “DARK MATTER” was more than five years in the making, in part because Abdu’Allah has been reluctant to let curators and others into his studio space.
“It’s a really personal, sacrosanct space,” he said. “You’re planting seeds. Someone can come in and kill your dream. … You’ve got to decide what compromises you’re going to make for your work.”
If the studio is sacred, he finds a home in the gallery, and much of the work in “DARK MATTER” is deeply personal. Included are drawings he made with his eyes squeezed shut and photographs of young people in Madison that he works with, re-created with paint made with Abdu’Allah’s own hair.
There are images of the barber shop where he worked in London in the early 1990s, photos of young men whose hair he’s cut, and the barber case Abdu’Allah used to use for “mobile haircuts.” Nearby is a wall’s worth of “Black Panther” comic books. These, Abdu’Allah said, helped him learn to draw.
At the entrance to the show, attendees will pass through a series of six-and-a-half-foot, head-to-toe portraits on aluminum of the British rap group Scientists of Sound.
The series, “I Wanna Kill Sam ’Cause He Ain’t My Motherfucking Uncle,” debuted in 1993. Embedded in the images is a reference to when Abdu’Allah changed his name as a young man (from Paul Duffus, his birth name) and reverted to Islam.
“In the late 80s, early 90s, there was a strong shift where young men or women were changing their names, from English names to Afrocentric names,” he said. “It was all about going back to the roots.”
Perhaps the most striking piece in the show is “Garden of Eden,” commissioned in London and created with David Adjaye. It was displayed in London in the fall and winter of 2003, and now it’s in a corner of MMoCA’s galleries.
“Garden of Eden” has two separate entrances. People with light eyes (blue, green, gray) go in one entrance, passing through a dark hallway into a box of mirrored light. People with dark eyes will be ushered around another way, where they can see into the space. One-way mirrors obscure the view of each group from the other.
This piece, Abdu’Allah said, is “a metaphor for my own body. You’re inside of me.” The orange-red glow inside references when he was a kid, eyes closed, looking up toward the sun.
Inspired by “The Matrix” as much as “Alice in Wonderland,” “Garden of Eden” underscores the meaning of “dark matter” for the artist. Abdu’Allah finds that scholars are quick to draw conclusions about artists with his “optics” — people with dark skin, often of African or Caribbean descent, whose work is quickly pigeonholed and racialized.
To Abdu’Allah, “dark matter” is a reference to “the things that can’t really be quantified.”
“When there are exhibitions or work by people that share my optics, (viewers) always come in with the one-sixth — ‘Oh, this is about race,’ or ‘Oh, this is about oppression,’” Abdu’Allah said. “They don’t err on the side of the infinite possibilities that are aligned with how I navigate the world.”
‘Our community is better than this’
Abdu’Allah said he plans to do some “Live Salon” barbershop-style events linked to the exhibition, although nothing is scheduled publicly yet. Meanwhile, a panel called “Black Women Artists Speak” is set for Tuesday, Sept. 20 at Madison College’s south campus — a panel the museum is no longer involved with, but which intends to take up recent controversies surrounding the Triennial.
Might some Madison art lovers skip his show because they’re upset with the museum? Perhaps, Abdu’Allah said. That’s alright. “My work has always been aligned with protest,” he said. He would like to see more discussion and honest appraisal of the work in the Triennial, instead of the focus on the artists’ identity.
“There’s integrity in the show, the Black female artists show, and there was just a series of unfortunate events,” he said. “I do think our community is better than this.
“I would hope that we can heal, that we could continue to allow the arts to flourish. That’s what my main goal is.”
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