Transcript for The Barbershop

Jim Fleming: This sounds really familiar. Tell us, Charles, where are we?


Charles Monroe Kane: Well Jim what you’re hearing is the sound of a barbershop here in Madison. It’s called the Atwood Family Barbershop. It’s where I get my haircuts down the street from my house, but I went there a couple of days ago to talk to Faisal Abdu'Allah. He’s a London-based artist. In fact, he’s the artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin here.


Jim Fleming: So why is an artist in a barbershop?


Charles Monroe Kane: Well, Faisal is also a barber in London, and in fact he gets all of his inspiration from the barbershop for his art, and if you’ll notice from his accent he’s a Jamaican immigrant to London. For me I thought it would be best to talk to him in a barbershop to kind of get the vibe of where his work comes from. Faisal was in a documentary recently that asked a big question. What does a haircut mean to a black man? Here in Madison, everyone at the barbershop seemed to have something to say about that question. I start with Faisal himself though who was, by the way, cutting hair the entire I spoke to him.


Faisal Abdu'Allah: I think a haircut is the alpha and the omega. For me it’s probably one of the most kind of...the hair is like the crown isn’t it? The hair kind of sits on top of your head. I think issues of representation and identity have been played out in my own life when I was very young and my father was always keen about his identity - his look of how he was perceived by the host community in London. So representation for me was very important. Always had polished shoes, always wore a suit, always was groomed and in some ways you know being groomed was very much a part of your understanding of self, body knowledge, and understanding what your aspirations are. So for me the haircut was a very very important kind of detail in one’s own makeup. So for my father it was haircut and shoes. Once those two things were in place, he believed you could go out into the landscape and do incredible things. So that’s how I frame the idea of a haircut.


Charles Monroe Kane: The barbershop right now is in my neighborhood. It’s intimidating. It’s an intimidating space. I’m surrounded by white people. I’m surrounded by that culture and suddenly I look in through this glass window, and I see not just a bunch of black people. I see a bunch of black men. Do you think the black barber should care, or do you think maybe that’s a space that we need, that white people need to be introduced to to maybe find out some truth.


Faisal Abdu'Allah: Race is not my problem. Race is in some respects the white man’s problem. So when I go into Wells Fargo or Chase Bank or I walk into Macey’s and I get the furry eyed treatment from the security guard, it’s their problem not mine. They feel I might be coming in there to maybe take something. They create environments that are not conducive to what I feel comfortable with, and I don’t see them trying to create a space that black people feel cool about, so why should we be conscious about the issue of race? All we’re doing is trading space where you come in, you get a haircut. Now if in your own makeup you believe there is something inherently different about a black guy cutting your hair, that for some strange reason he’s going to remember civil rights and probably take your neck off. This is not Sweeny Todd. This is a space where we want to earn money. We want to earn money. So if you want to come in, and you want to sit down, read a paper, get your haircut, I’m cool in the gang with that. It’s not a problem. Back in the 70s, the white guys would come in the barbershop, and they would sit down, and you could see them feel uncomfortable, and they would always say, I’m just going to get a newspaper. That would be the line they would always use in the 70s. And the white guys would go and get a newspaper, and they would never come back. It’s like an escape.


Unnamed: At the same time you’re coming in to get a haircut, but I know for me I work at UW. A barbershop is one of the few places I can come around and be surrounded by black men, like when I go to church or when I go anywhere else. So I’m not really ready for a whole bunch of white people to just walk up in the barbershop. Even the fact that I came here this morning and thought I was going to start my day off with some black guys and you all walked in, and all of a sudden now Madison the city, the white city that it is is evading my space. Do white people need that question complicated? Do white people need to come learn some truth? Hell no, they need to come and get a haircut, but the idea that that’s putting black people, black men in an exhibit, and white people are coming in to get some kind of truth. No, I’m here to get a fade, and I’m also here to not see white people for a little bit. So you coming in to learn something about yourself or about your world is not just complicated, it’s fucked up.


Faisal Abdu'Allah: And I think what ... said is very illustrative of the barbershop. It’s a space where true issues are discussed, and I can say it’s sometimes a bit sweet in the mouth and it’s bitter in the belly. But that’s his reality, and I think we can never run away from that. I think what I love about the barbershop. It doesn’t try to sanitize it - not at all. But the barbershop space is a space that explores all of those different possibilities in a very honest and open way.


Charles Monroe Kane: So you’re obviously a world-renowned artist. You’re also, certainly in your neighborhood, a renowned barber. How is being a barber and an artist connected?


Faisal Abdu'Allah: Essentially, artists work with ideas, and there is some kind of dissemination. There is some kind of output. Now our understanding of artists is that I’m this guy that wears a beret with a thin mustache, and I create these wonderful paintings. I throw things around. I throw paint around. No. It’s about ideas, and what I’m doing now is a form of sculpture. I’m actually sculpting hair. I’m actually sculpting material, and I keep sculpting that material until it has a beautiful aesthetic and then this aesthetic is then appreciated by an audience but whilst I’m doing my sculpting the subject is alive. The subject has a voice and a personality. And that subject tells me stories - about themselves, about the issues they’re currently dealing with. Whether they be about race. Whether they be about privacy, and I think that is too much to be allowed to just go into the walls and disappear. So what I try to do, I try to grab some of those ideas and sentiments and deposit them into works. If you put aside the process of how you make a fade, I think about the person. I think about the subject. They get a fade because of vanity, hygiene, body knowledge, a sense of pride. The idea of image consciousness, for me, is the number one thing. That individuals are very conscious about how they look. Having that fade is a global aesthetic, so when you go to the airport, you always see people who have been to the hairdressers because they always get their haircut before they fly. So you always see the good fades at the airport. You always see the good fades at the weddings. You always see the good fades on the sports stars on TV. In areas of importance you always find good grooming. So it doesn’t surprise me that that consciousness is global because I can sit at home, and I can see what Kobe Bryant looks like now or Jay-Z looks like now or what Aaron Lennon playing for the Spurs looks like. And globally they all look the same.


Charles Monroe Kane: You’ve been doing art for quite some time. Are all your ideas, your art, coming from the barbershop?


Faisal Abdu'Allah: Yeah, I can honestly say that...I remember I did a talk at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and they said to me, What comes first: barbering or making art? And I said if I stopped barbering, I wouldn’t make any more work because that’s where the work comes from. Look at Terry. He’s performing. If he were to come into the shop, and he wasn’t talking it’d be like, what’s wrong with Terry? What the hell’s wrong with him. Because he’s performing. That’s what he does, and I think being a barber is part of that performance. And you have to be the broker. You bring somebody in, and you have a debate, and you say, No you’re wrong. It’s an interesting place to be. In some ways, he’s the artist, and the customer is the subject, and you have an audience. So in some ways I think it’s a really interesting relationship that takes place. In the next twenty minutes, they might travel the world 8 or nine times, and they may disagree. He may stop cutting and walk around prop somebody. But in some ways that’s the magic of the space.


Unnamed 2: Because you cut their hair. But on the reverse end, as somebody who’s getting their haircut, there’s a form of trust that has to be there. I’m not going to just let anybody cut my hair. Some form of connection has to be there for you to touch my hair because you control my future then. A bad haircut, I’m not going to get the job. As somebody getting their hair cut, it kind of forms the connection as it is. So five times six times a haircut, a connection is formed and solid then.


Charles Monroe Kane: Imagine if positive things happen to you. You’re girlfriend says, ‘oh my god, I love your haircut.’ You get the job, then you can see the relationship. But you don’t know Faisal. You just met him today. Are you nervous?


Unnamed 2: I’m looking at his hair, and I’m getting a good vibe from him.


Announcer: So you can see Faisal Abdu'Allah’s photos on our website at Faisel’s art studio and barbershop are in London. TTBook producer Charles Monroe Kane spoke with Faisal at the Atwood Family Barbershop, owned and operated in Madison, Wisconsin by barber Terry Moss.


...You dress nice, absolutely. You dress how you want to be. You want to be the best.


...You come get your haircut at Terry’s shop or at any black barbershop obviously for the culture. There’s not too many places where you can go where you’re going to see a group of black guys in one spot who are able to talk and give each other the business whether they know each other or not. I know I come in here, and I talk crazy to everybody. feel free, you feel free here.


Comments for this interview

The Barbershop (Kristie, 05/06/2013 - 9:55am)

I am a (white) mother who takes my (brown) boys to Terry for haircuts. I was very nervous the first time I went in, but it wasn't because of skin color. I know that the barbershop is "man land," and a female presence might not be welcomed. It certainly isn't as raucous when I step into the shop. I join in the sports chat when I can, and that seems to be fine with everyone there. I have not had an experience where customers made us feel unwelcome. Terry has been absolutely fantastic with the boys, and he treats me simply like a human being. For that, I am grateful. As a family with brown kids and white parents, sometimes we don't seem to fit in anywhere. We don't come to the barbershop for culture or to invade a black man's space. We come there because Terry is a great guy and a great barber.