On State Street in Madison, a new monument stands prominently on the corner in front of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMOCA).
At a distance, it evokes a tribute to a historic leader. Its subject’s seated pose echoes the iconic statue of Abraham Lincoln on Bascom Hill. But look closer and you’ll see that this work of art is a little different. Carved from Indiana limestone, standing almost seven feet, and weighing in at more than 12,000 pounds, it shows a man sitting in a barber’s chair.
The subject — and designer — of the statue is UW–Madison’s Faisal Abdu’Allah, an internationally acclaimed artist, professor in the Art Department, and the associate dean of the arts in the School of Education. Abdu’Allah created the work, “Blu³eprint,” in collaboration with the fine arts team at Quarra Stone Company in Madison and Italy-based master stone carver and sculptor Martin Foot. Abdu’Allah explains that adding the superscript “3” makes it possible to spell the Zulu word “Ubuntu” with the letters in Blueprint. He says that the Zulu ethic of ubuntu embodies the idea that a person is a person only through other people, or “I am because we are,” and reflects the importance of community in shaping us.
Abdu’Allah first conceived of “Blu³eprint” several years ago in response to debates about the role of monuments and their removal from public view. His solution was to commission artists of color to create new monuments — or “counter-monuments,” he says — that represent their own aesthetics, histories, and experiences and celebrate our “shared humanity.”
In “Blu³eprint,” the barber’s chair is a nod to Abdu’Allah’s personal history working as a barber in London while pursuing his master’s degree at the Royal College of Art. The barbershop is where Abdu’Allah grew up, formed bonds, and learned about life and culture, he says.
“The barber chair is a portal that allows a lot of people to reposition themselves,” says Abdu’Allah, who holds the Chazen Family Distinguished Chair in Art. “Getting a haircut is a shared human experience, a ceremony of losing the old and breaking into the new.”
“Blu³eprint” is the initial phase of Abdu’Allah’s upcoming exhibition at MMoCA titled “DARK MATTER,” which opens Sept. 17, 2022.
With “DARK MATTER,” Abdu’Allah aims to show the arc of his practice, including early work from his time as a Royal College of Art student. The exhibition will feature a selection of his most celebrated series, many which have never been shown in the U.S.
A central theme, he says, explores issues around “Britishness.”
“The British experience is a body living in the United Kingdom, and colliding, and being educated, and experiencing love and adversity,” he explains. “And that’s very different to a body living in the U.S.”
Other works explore issues of privilege and exclusion, such as “Garden of Eden” (2003), an architectural installation that Abdu’Allah created in collaboration with renowned architect Sir David Adjaye, who recently designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
With “Garden of Eden,” visitors are separated based on their eye color when they enter the installation. “Essentially, you go into these different spaces. And it’s two different experiences,” says Abdu’Allah. “A gallery person will look at you, and if you have gray, blue, or green eyes they’ll say to go left; if you have brown, hazel, or red eyes they’ll say to go right.”
“ ‘Garden of Eden’ is a metaphor for my own body,” says Abdu’Allah. “And it’s a metaphor for the things that I’ve seen and that my body carries with me.”
• Watch a video examining what drives Faisal Abdu’Allah and his work at: go.wisc.edu/lc-abduallah