Frankly, I love the combination. Faisal Abdu’allah – formerly Paul Duffus – is an artist and a barber. Faisal is the grooviest barber’s in Harlesden (the cutters wear red and white checked shirts) – boxer, James De Gale and rapper, Gappy Ranks are regulars, it’s always full – and its eponymous owner, Faisal is doing really well as an artist internationally. His work (photographs, screen prints, film installations) fills three floors of a super dooper new museum, Centro Atlantico de Arte Moderno in Gran Canaria at the moment, he’s also a visiting professor at Stanford University as well as a lecturer at East London University.
This man is a dude, if one can still say that. Today, he cuts a dapper figure with his spotted cravat and low key swagger. And is full of art tales, Harlesden tales and Louis Farrakhan tales. The barber’s shop – white modernity prevails – is on the High Street near Willesden Junction and he has a work/gallery space downstairs. A local boy, he was born down Tubbs Lane – his Jamaican parents came over in the 60s, his father worked at the Heinz factory in Park Royal – and went to Furness Primary School and what was then, Willesden High School. One of the first things he says to me is – “I think the Capital City Academy is one of the most beautiful buildings in London”. Which makes me want to look at it again.
He starts showing me the brochure from his ‘mid-career’ show in Gran Canaria which is large black and white photographs of people that form a kind of wall of trust, they were taken when he was based at Stanford University for a year. “It’s called 10% of Separation,” he says, “I got a student to choose someone they totally trusted, then took their photograph, and then continued from there. One 23 year old chose his 50 something professor which was moving, then other people had dilemmas about who they would choose. That was all part of it.”
Faisal has been in a few documentaries, and famously the 2003 docu-soap The Heart Of Harlesden. Docu-soap, there’s a pre-lumping-everything-together-as-a-reality-show kind of term. Someone is following him at present as part of a four barbers from around the world documentary. There was one in 1991 called That Day Changed My Life. That day was when he was a 20 year art old student in Boston. “My parents were Pentecostal Christians and when I was a child, I went to a church (must be the Rebirth Tabanacle) every Sunday down Leghorn Road. I had some surreal experiences there. But when I got to the US, I realised that there were gaps in my consciousness spiritually, politically and culturally. I didn’t know anything about the Harlem Renaissance or Black Power. Someone mentioned Malcolm X and I started reading. Someone mentioned Billie Holliday and I started listening. It was all about discovering my own sense of purpose and also who I was as an artist. I started listening to the radio and I thought I was hearing Martin Luther King, but it was Louis Farrakhan. A couple of weeks later, someone invited to the mosque where Farrakhan was preaching. That was the day that changed my life. The women were all in elegant white, the men all in suits and bow ties and the words were all about empowerment for young African Americans. Somehow it fitted with where I was going. I went every week after that. In fact, they sent a limo and two minders to pick me up. That was because I was English and therefore somehow special. Often people talk about the Nation of Islam as though it’s all about hate, but for me that place was nothing but love.” When he got back, Faisal became a Muslim and changed his name, although he was no longer part of the Nation of Islam. And the documentary followed him around.
As we set off on our walk, I discover Faisal has a wife, three kids and lives these days in North Harrow. Posh now? “Well, I sleep there but my community is in Harlesden, and I go out between here and the West End,” he says. He still cuts hair on Saturdays and says it keeps him real. As we walk down Tubbs Rd to number 52 where his family used to live, he says he remembers it as a friendly neighbourhood with mainly Jamaican and Irish families. He was the ‘wash belly baby’, the last of eight.
After being inspired by lack of good barbers in Boston to start cutting hair, it was shaving palm trees into the head of his nephew that got him the job at City Barbers which was once down the High St opposite the Job Centre. “They saw him on the street and asked him where he’d had his hair cut, then they employed me for six years. That took me right through Central St Martins and the Royal School of Art, it paid for my materials. It was great, it was also bringing together of two worlds together that don’t usually meet. And cutting hair informs my work. The stories of the people I cut often become my work. At Stanford, there was exhibition of my photographs which showed the complexity of the Black British identity and I was invited to do a barber shop performance where I cut hair and they totally got it.” He even met his wife at City Barbers!
We start talking about invisible Harlesden – in that Faisal wants to find archive photos of his shop from the past. “I know it used to be a record shop at one time,” he says, “but I want to find out more.”
As we’re walking past the shops that admittedly look pretty bad generally, ie facades, general cleanliness, and arrangement of contents – I discover that Faisal has distinct potential as Harlesden’s own Mary Portas. He has opinions about the place and how it could be. He suggests dressing spaces, in fact, a Harlesden shop makeover event. Which is a great idea. And that the shops could do with having a visit from ‘the style police’! “Brent council need to do a clean up here, look at the pavements, they are filthy,” he exclaims, “after all, Harlesden is the gateway to Wembley. Look at these facades, there needs to be a standard set and an aesthetic created. Windows are dirty, interiors are crammed with items and there’s not enough light. I know when I did the interior of Faisal, I had the first plasma TV and all the other barbers stepped up their game. Look at that shop over there, it could be a sculpture by Sue Noble and Tim Webster.”
We pass the Jam Down Bakery and Faisal has nothing but praise for their meat loaf, patties and coco bread. I mention that I’m soon off to Trinidad where my friend, novelist, Monique Roffey’s family live. “I know Chris Offili really well,” he says of the infamous- for-using-elephant-dung artist who now lives in Trinidad, “we were at the Royal College of Art together.”
For Faisal walking the High Street is like going back in time. “I remember this shop being a toy shop,” he says near JJ’s wine bar, “my family could never afford for me to have anything, so I did a lot of looking. I make a point of taking my own children to toy shops and letting them have what they want. I talked about my lack of toys when I opened my show recently in Gran Canaria and how it affected me. But the most important thing is sanity, and for that we have to keep our values. That means not getting distracted by the ‘success’ of peers.”
On the corner of St Mary’s Road and Craven Park Road is a new block of flats. Underneath – I’ve been told there’s squat. We arrive and there are strange curtains up at the windows but also a sign pronouncing The Citadel so we assume that the owners have agreed for this American church (I look it up afterwards) to rent it. In my mind, I’d been imagining an Occupy Harlesden, but sadly that is not the case.
Walking back, Faisal talks about the influence the Pentecostal church had on him as a child. “For years, their prophecies that the end of the world was nigh, plagued me, I was really affected by that and scared,” he says. “It also influenced my work. It’s a very one dimensional way of interpreting the world and trying to scare you into being ‘good’. I did a photographic installation called Heads of State which was photos of bodies in a morgue. At the period at the end of the 90s and beginning of 2000s, I was losing a lot of clients. They were being shot. I used one suit six times to go to funerals and then I threw it away because I decided it was bad luck.”
Does he think the situation is better now? “I think the people involved in drugs and crime are wising up,” he says, “they’re not driving flash cars and they’re not killing people that owe them money, because they’ve realised if they’re dead, they’re definitely not going to get their money back.”
At the moment, Faisal is photographing potential Team GB Olympian, triple jumper, Nadia Williams in training. “She has to jump another 36 cm to qualify so that’s what it’s called,” he says. “That’s over in Hackney and sponsored by an investment bank. I would have loved to do something in Brent.”
Brent – are you listening?