In Conversation With:
Interviewed and written by Fleur Adderley
Abdi Farah is a contemporary artist based in New Orleans. His works focus on the development of identity and the influence of visual culture on our views of our world. I was lucky enough to speak with Abdi about his experience in the art world, his personal development as an artist and the way in which we can creatively adapt to the changes going on around us. He shines a light on the ways we need to reframe the perspectives deep rooted in art institutions and social structures, and the ways in which we can each make a difference to the bigger picture.
Abdi has been based in New Orleans, Louisiana, for around eight years now. He works as an artist both independently and within artist run collectives. He mentions that the robust creative community in his city feels durable and inspiring, giving the city an open and accessible identity.
Looking further back into the origins of Abdi’s love of art, he tells me that “art was always part of the family for me.” There were no other formal artists but the presence of craft, making and expression that ran through his family cultivated a creatively charged atmosphere for him as a child. “We would be outside all day, and when it was time to come inside, we would sit around the kitchen table and draw for hours. It was usually just comic book characters, scenes or little narratives. This was always something that connected me to those parts of my family.” It wasn’t until high school that he began connecting the word Art to what he was creating. He is originally from Baltimore, Maryland, which has a rich art history and lots of good art schools. It was through his study of art history, theory, drawing and sculpture where he began to realise “how big the world could be and what the possibilities were.” The creative elements he was drawn to and intrigued by began actualising themselves into real words and actions, encouraging Abdi to think “oh I want to keep doing this in a more serious way”. It gave him the language to decide that he wanted to pursue a path as a “person in the world who makes things.”
Abdi returned to education in 2017 and 2018. He enrolled onto a graduate programme at Tulane University, New Orleans where he was paid to teach whilst learning. The reason he was drawn back to an academic education ten years on was because he believes “there is something great about having a prescribed period of time where you’re like ‘ok this is going to be a really intense period of growth and learning and challenging of oneself’.” This period of time gave him the opportunity to figure out which avenues he wanted to explore next. Leaving these institutions as a creative graduate is uncertain to say the least, he expresses that “to be an artist is to be out in the wind, to be an entrepreneur, not knowing when or where opportunities will come.”
“there is something great about having a prescribed period of time where you’re like ‘ok this is going to be a really intense period of growth and learning and challenging of oneself’.”
Abdi’s earlier work centres itself around self-portraiture. Throughout his career he has started looking outwards at the things around him and how these have had strong influences on his identity, perception and experience of the world. He tells me “I am still in a place where I am trying to unpack, investigate and interrogate my past self in a way, like the ways in which I grew up and how the world I was surrounded by has influenced my world now.”
I ask Abdi about his more recent works. Many of them focus on sporting mascots, logos and imagery, which Abdi then adapts to show how these symbolic pieces of visual culture hold a deeper significance. When he reflects on these pieces, he traces back to his childhood in Baltimore. He grew up in a neighbourhood where basketball was extremely important. Many of his connections and parts of his identity came from this sport, “it really shapes how people think of themselves and what things they focus on.” He notes that it is only as an adult that he has started to unpack and question which aspects were healthy and/or destructive.
In New Orleans he re-engaged with the socio-political features of this sporting culture, particularly basketball and high school football. He began noticing a similarity between the ways in which certain aspects of the community feed into the youth, both now and when he was growing up. He explains that there are many layers to these parts of someone’s development; some are interesting, like teamwork and community and working towards a common goal; but there are also destructive forces, where it becomes more than the academics, with a heavy monetary interest resting on the kids and their talents. “I find this all a very fertile, great arena in which to think about art and think about how visual culture creates itself within those worlds”. He began exploring this concept by creating portraits of the young players he was meeting, he would go to their games and do oil paintings of them. He started to find that this depiction of the concept was limited in certain ways, so he decided to “zoom out further,” looking at more aspects such as materials, iconography, branding, design, and the local impact this has on individuals.
Abdi expresses a fascination with “how such things start at a young age and how people get connected to them and how they guide the perception and character of one’s community,” especially considering how formative one’s younger years are. It is clear to see how easily sporting culture influences people’s identity and the impact this has on the individual. Abdi talks to me about UK football fans, where this culture of a sporting community seeps into many other aspects of a person’s character. It can become so all-consuming. There is a shared affinity through sport, and what Abdi takes from this is how the “visual parts of the culture take on its own life.” It has tight connections to patriotism, nationalism and the potential for an us-v-them mentality. Abdi mentions that this can often be used as an excuse to manifest our desire to express violence or hatred toward another group. It becomes a socially acceptable and overlooked way to create arenas of exclusion and division. In turn this makes you question not only the development of our identities through this culture, but which parts are human nature; there is always an element of competition and testing of ourselves against others.
“I am still in a place where I am trying to unpack, investigate and interrogate my past self in a way, like the ways in which I grew up and how the world I was surrounded by has influenced my world now.”
Reflection on Work of Art: Next Great Artist
In 2010, Abdi won the reality art show Work of Art: Next Great Artist. He was just twenty-two when he won the series. His creative energy on the show was fresh and exciting, his work impressive and his approach inspiring. I asked Abdi, if he was to reflect 10 years on, what he would go back in time and tell himself. He laughs and says, “probably the opposite, I would go back in time and ask twenty-two me for advice now. My younger self had a lot of things figured out in a weird way.” He mentions that as time goes on you realise you didn’t have it all figured out and that’s ok, “that in itself is a process.” The approach you have to the world in your early twenties is fuelled by confidence, energy and optimism which is something Abdi tries to maintain within his practice now.
The art world cultivates an attitude that you must wait until your thirties before you can properly thrive and be accepted. Because of this there becomes a rush where artists wish away time. He notes that he liked the person he was then. “What we easily slip into is in every moment we are not appreciating the actual moment we are in.” Abdi tells me he wants to be a person appreciating it all, at every stage.
With some more reflection, he says some real advice to his twenty-two-year-old self would be to be open to whatever happens; “maybe that door initially opens through art and painting, but maybe it transitions into writing, or something completely different. I don’t think the lines need to be super prescribed.”
The Art World
Approaching the art world with this high energy and optimism is the key to succeeding in it, but there are inevitably hurdles and unexpected elements to the industry. Abdi traces back to his initial view of the art world in New York. “I feel like I fell in love with this really romanticised idea of being an artist, the New York artist and the art world. It was a nostalgic idea of the 1970s and 80s artists who can think ‘yeh we are gonna live in Downtown NY’. I still love that and try to live my life like that, but the art world is not like that.” Instead, the art world takes the shape of a strange network of galleries, institutions, collectors and dealers. So much of it is not about the artworks or the artists or the spark within art that you first think. In learning this about the institutions he was working within, Abdi took a step back to assess the parts of art that really inspire him. He began asking himself “what do I want to make, what do I want my hands to be creating and touching and building, what people do I want to work with, what people do I want to see?” He mentions that the important thing is keeping these questions as a focus, which can be easier said than done as we are prone to getting distracted.
The art world has lots of social and political catching up to do. The resurgence of the BLM movement has led people to question the industries and environments they live and work in. The conventional nature of the art world clashes with the evolving world around us. I speak to Abdi about his experience of this, and whether he expects any development in its outdated approach. He emphasises that we have entered a stage in the art world where institutions are attempting to create a diverse presentation of artists, including some retrospectives of great artists of colour in some of the biggest institutions in America. He does not dispute that this is a good thing but he stresses that “it always has this element of exoticism and tokenism where it becomes ‘oh this is something the world is interested in, lets present it and not 100% grapple with a lot of the really interesting issues these artists are working and dealing with’.” What makes this issue sharper is that the makeup of these institutions has not changed. When there is a lack of diversity from the top there becomes a top-down approach and from this comes the view that “this is interesting, lets package this in a sanitised way where our upper class, not-in-touch base of supporters can understand.” Abdi states that “on one hand I’ll take it, but it is not solving anything.” How does this structure ever enable artists of colour, female artists, LGBTQ+ artists to get any sort of start and voice in the art world? It really begins to make us question who this is all for.
“it always has this element of exoticism and tokenism where it becomes ‘oh this is something the world is interested in, lets present it and not 100% grapple with a lot of the really interesting issues these artists are working and dealing with'."
“Don’t get me wrong” Abdi says “it’s a start, and it’s better than a slate of programming going through old school greatest hits ‘here’s another Pollock show, here’s another Rauschenberg show’ at least we are starting to unpack this ignored history of artists who were making things throughout the same history but were disregarded, so that’s good.” It is the pace at which this change is being introduced into the art world is what is so disappointing. Abdi tells me that he goes in and out of feeling pessimistic about it. As an artist you are part of this system where you never have the means to an end, “we are always waiting for somebody to tap us on the shoulder and to present us to the world.” One is always working with galleries and people who are a lot richer, and you are just one of the ten to twenty artists they work with. “I’m helping them to become and to be and to sustain their level of affluence and I’m just a worker within that system, so what does it look like to break out of that?” This is what encouraged Abdi to separate himself from these kinds of institutions and begin focusing his time and energy on artist run spaces. It is not as financially sustainable, but it is “emotionally edifying”.
In breaking out of these negative elements of the art world, Abdi had to put into practice the questions he asks himself, what does he want to see and do and make. “What does this look like for me as an artist? How does it reframe the discussion if I proactively seek out younger dealers, younger gallery owners, gallery owners of colour, those who better represent me and are more on the same level as me as opposed to supporting the same level of rich people wanting to be a part of the arts.” There needs to be a restructuring from the root, and what should grow from this is an art world that encapsulates people from all backgrounds who can support and be supported in many ways. Abdi questions that if this was all a seed beginning to grow, how will this sprout in the digital and Covid age? How do we push for something that is experiential? After all, real change happens in physical spaces with people coming together. As more and more spaces have to close their doors, what does this mean for the arts and culture? Abdi works with the artist run collective called Antenna, “our doors haven’t been open for months now. What does our entity look like without a space? What can we be doing; how do we serve people and how can we present the arts without a physical space?” At such a turbulent time, the answers as to how we overcome these things feel distant and hazy. On top of this, Abdi asks how we make art more accessible to a wider audience and part of a larger culture, “think about music and movies, people of all sorts of backgrounds participate in these things, I’m always disappointed that art is still this thing that a select few people participate in. I’m still thinking of ways to do that in the future.”
“we are always waiting for somebody to tap us on the shoulder and to present us to the world.”
Looking at Abdi’s role as an artist who wants to make changes to the art world, I am led to ask him about the presence of the political in his work. The personal and the political are intrinsically interlinked for artists. Abdi affirms this idea, stating that “the personal is always political and vice versa. I, as a black man in America, never experience a moment where I’m not walking through the world thinking of the personal as political. If you're queer, you’re a womxn, you’re black, you're walking through the world thinking about your body as it relates to systems of control and oppression and privilege every moment of every day.” These experiences and outlooks will always influence the way these people express themselves. Abdi notes that he doesn’t necessarily go into his works considering the macro-political messages behind them, he finds this to be paralysing. “It takes a bit of time for the political to trickle down into something that I can wrap my words around, that I can wrap art around, so I’m always starting with something personal.” He tells me it is more often once a piece is finished that it has larger political ideas imbedded, and the political is going to emit from the work in some way whether he likes it or not. Artists should not be going into their work continuously wanting to educate the viewer on political ideas, because “we do not know everything about these things at all times. We are all these messy individuals and our politics are crazy and weird, they aren’t a straight line through an issue. I want people to present honestly who they are, see where things fall, see where new ideas and new issues get brought up. I think the art is sometimes smarter than I can be as it relates to the politics, I don’t need to illustrate it.”
"I think the art is sometimes smarter than I can be as it relates to the politics, I don’t need to illustrate it.”
Abdi shows an impressive ability to articulate the reasons why we behave and express ourselves the way we do. The influence of visual culture, politics and our social settings make us prone to absorbing certain elements of our world without even realising. He also communicates an awareness that creative change can only happen collectively. The power of the people paired with open-mindedness and inclusivity is the way Abdi believes we can move through these turbulent times.