Tag Archives: Barbers

THE MAN WHO MAKES ART AND CUTS HAIR

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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.”

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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.

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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?

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A SEA OF HAIR IN HARLESDEN

Today, I’m walking with 21 year old, June Mckenzie.  Having recently graduated from Westminster University with a degree in journalism – she’s the first one in her family to go on to further education – I met June before Xmas at my ward meeting run by the local police. I was there because of the burglaries in my road; she was there because she wanted to help stop the gun crime.  “I can’t see it stopping,” she said sounding frustrated, “black on black crime is complex. I did my dissertation on how it is portrayed in the media. I want to be involved. I know a lot of young men who are in that world. I don’t know what to do, but I want to do something.”

A few months later, I met up with June outside the famous John Line’s butcher’s shop in the Harrow Rd, which without fail has queues snaking round the corner. “We’ve always bought our meat here,” she explained, “it’s cheap and good. It’s a family tradition with us.” She lives with her grandfather round the corner. “If it wasn’t for my grandparents, my life would be very different. I might have been a single mum or in prison. In many ways, they brought me up. Sadly, my granny died nearly two years ago. I still miss her, her death has affected me physically and mentally.”

Just before we said goodbye, June asked if I’d heard of Shawn Callum? “My friend is the mother of his baby,” she explained showing me a photo of the good-looking 26 year old with shaved eyebrows, “ he was shot and killed last year leaving a private party at Stonebridge Primary School.” Why? Was he involved in drugs and gangs? “No, he wasn’t but that is how the newspapers portrayed him. He was innocent. The papers never portray black youth as innocent bystanders,” she said passionately.” The trial is very soon. My friend is nervous about whether the person who has been charged, will be prosecuted or not.”

By the time I see her this time, the 21 year old who was accused of the killing, has been found not guilty. Not enough evidence, it seems. June is upset. Her friend is beside herself. They feel that the killer has been set free and that the legal system has failed Shawn. And them.

But I don’t want to just focus on June and who she knows in that way. So I’ve had the idea of getting her to take me on a hairdressing tour. She spends a lot of time on her hair and Harlesden is big on hairdressers and barbers. Plus I really am ignorant about his secret hairworld.

We meet at the telephone box at the junction of Wrottesley Rd and the Harrow Rd. It’s 6 30pm. Bless her, June’s taking this hair tour very seriously. She’s even changed her hair for me. Last time, it was long and straight. This time, it’s back in a kind of ponytail. “I’m wearing a lace,” she explains as though I’ll understand. Oh dear, I’m already baffled.

Does she mean a wig? “No, we call it a lace, it’s stuck on to the front of my head,” she says, “it’s glossy and long. Women like Beyonce wear them. But I also wear weaves when I’m not wearing a lace.” And how much are they? “I get two packets of weaves for £60 and they last about five weeks. But laces cost between £150 and £200 for real hair and might last a month before they start getting itchy.”  Oh, the fine art of laces. I’m astonished. She spends this much money on her hair!

We cross the bridge at Willesden Junction station and pass the nightclub Jet Set on the left. A strange little club – which bizarrely has the words Dine and Dance up there too, but I’m pretty sure that there’s no dining going on – the only time I see it come to life is at the weekend at about 2am. “There was a shooting there too,” she says.  “A DJ was shot outside, he has to have round the clock care now. He was trying to be a peacemaker for another guy. I know Craig Robertson who did it. He was only 17 at the time. I grew up with him, my granny would always cook for him, he loved her mutton and rice. I was totally shocked at what happened.”


Our first stop is the renowned barber’s Faisal. Its eponymous owner featured in the  2001 BBC 2 docu-soap (mentioned in walk 4) The Heart of Harlesden. I remember  Faisal because he was a photographer as well as a barber. He had a studio downstairs and the shop upstairs. I wonder if he is still a photographer? Today, the shop is packed with assistants and customers – from toddlers to 30somethings.

I talk to Ben who is having a razor cut. How often does he come? “Every three weeks,” he says, “and I’ve been coming for 10 years. Since it started, in fact. I pay £12 for a fade.” Then, there’s a nudge from the barber. “Oh, it’s a skin fade not a fade,” he re-informs me. Faisal is not here today, he only comes in on Saturdays. back.

We wander past a Brazilian hairdresser’s, which only has one customer. It’s nearly 7pm. “I’m not being rude,” says June, “but you never see that shop full.” Then a bar and restaurant called West Coast. Does she go there? “Well, I went a few weeks ago for the after-party of a funeral, but I wouldn’t normally go. They’re not my sort of people. They’re too arrogant for me.”

As we pass the Job Centre Plus – in other words, the former site of the Edwardian Willesden Hippodrome – which is on a hill, June makes an admission. “You’re going to think I’m mad,” she says, “but I’m not. Last week, I spent an hour and a half leaning against that tree and in that time I counted 165 young women and prams going to the Job Centre Plus. They looked angry and disillusioned. But I felt enraged. So many of them are getting benefits and flats. That’s why some of them get pregnant. I felt disgusted. I don’t want to be part of a culture that is like that. Young girls can do some much with their future!! Why waste it! Babies are a blessing but I don’t believe in bringing poverty into poverty.”

Sometimes, it feels as if June is carrying this burden – that how she sees it, the boys without fathers, the girls who are obeying a certain unwritten babymother law – all herself. It’s the opposite of what she wants for herself or them. I can feel her passion and fear rising simultaneously. “In my culture, to be poor is to be bad,” she says despairingly, “that’s why ‘easy’ drugs money is so attractive.”

As if on cue, we pass the Christian bookshop fittingly called The Rock. We pop in for solace. Books like Everyday Jesus Healing Wounds with a plaster on the cover, pink prayer books for girls, a bible especially for brides, a special sort of soft mints with stripes (“You get those in Jamaica,” says June), flowery Jesus bags. It’s an old-fashioned shop, which I could imagine finding in a suburb of Kingston. Yes, Kingston, Jamaica.

Next door is what I think is a skincare and shampoo shop. But we turn a corner and there it is. A sea of hair. Hair in packets hanging everywhere. Wavy, fiercely curly, straight, startlingly blonde, brown, black. All manner of hair. Real, not real. I’ve never seen so much hair in one place. They’re called things like Remi and  Milky Way.  I knew about the hairdresser’s and barber’s in Harlesden, but I had managed to totally miss out on the hair shops. This is hair for sale en masse. Of course, real hair is more expensive. And June wants real hair.

The slight, 30something man selling the hair, is Afghan. Another customer called Edith – she’s wearing a pretty brown and blonde lace, I’m an expert now – has come from Harrow on a hair mission. “There are twelve hair shops in Harlesden,” she explains. “I might keep a lace in for three months but then it will get uncomfortable. That’s what’s happening now. I’m getting ready for the weekend with my boyfriend and I want to give my head a rest so I’m looking for a wig, a long wig.”

I can’t believe how many hair shops there are in such a small area. Again I’m stunned at the effort and money that goes into these women’s hair. I say so. Loudly. “Yeah, we put hair first and health second,” giggles Edith who works in the City, “it’s our life, and we are willing to go the extra distance. My boyfriend is English and he’s still getting used to it.”

Why? Oh Why? “It means they can have a different hairstyle every day,” explains the doe-eyed Afghan assistant who says his family have been in the UK for 15 years, and now have a lovely big house near Finsbury Park. He might work in Harlesden but he doesn’t live here. The hair business is evidently good business.

In the meantime, the ‘girls’ are admiring each other’s laces. Edith is sporting the eye-catching blonde and brown one, whilst June has a rather more demure black one. “That one is too over-the-top for me, it’s too much,” says June, “ I couldn’t wear that at work.”  It’s fascinating that she is so disapproving. Hmm, do I hear the murmurings of a hair war?

Back out on the street, the shutters are going down on the nail shop, Hollywood. However, the former The Green Man, – a pub just down from the Royal Oak, which also opened in 1839, but now a Portuguese restaurant – is thronging with people. “My granddad will be back from Jamaica in April, he goes there in the winter,” says June, ”then you’ll find him in the Misty Moon up the road at this time in the evening.”

Did she ever go to Dreams nightclub? “Yeah, I went when I was young, like 14,” she says, “but I wouldn’t go now. There’s a club there called NW10. Did you see what those girls were wearing to Dreams in The Heart Of Harlesden?” “Yep,” I reply, “almost nothing, and the camera was constantly focusing on their behinds, often barely covered behinds.” “Oh, I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “The girls would arrive late at like at 4 in the morning just to make an entrance. They liked to think they were stars. It was all a status thing.”

It’s 8pm as we walk past the rest of the hair shops, hairdresser’s and barber’s. Most are closing. June just pops into one to check how much it would cost to have a ponytail. No, not that kind of ponytail. “It’s a way of grooming the hair to the side,” she says.

Evidently, I’ve still got a lot to learn…

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