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Faisal Abdu'Allah has created new piece 'The Park Royals'
Photograph: OPDC/Annual Art Commission

Meet the barber and artist celebrating his west London community

For Faisal Abdu'Allah, cutting hair and making art go hand in hand. This is his London story

By Christian Adofo

I was born in Park Royal in west London. My parents had come from Jamaica in the late ’60s: my dad worked at Heinz and my mother worked at Central Middlesex Hospital. As the youngest child in a large family, I became interested in art quite early on. Creating images was a way of creating space. I had these almost romantic ideas about life through drawing and painting.

When I was growing up in the ’70s, black barber shops weren’t on the high street. I went to get my hair cut in people’s homes. I would watch the elders play dominoes, drink Carlsberg and talk about a place I had never known called Jamaica. I found that the barber shop was an informal university, and I started cutting hair whilst I was studying for my art BA.

I soon found myself living in two different worlds. I spent weekends working in a barber shop in Harlesden talking about the issues of the day in a completely male environment. During the week, I was at the Royal College of Art or Central Saint Martins, talking about Foucault, Derrida and Freud. It became very complex, having to wear these two hats.

‘The barber shop was a place to source stories from the community’

Fast forward a few more years and I had raised enough money to purchase my own barber shop: Faisal Barbers on Harlesden High Street. It was a business, but some of the stories I was hearing were so current and relevant to my own experiences and I began to use them in my work.

I’m now a professor of art in the US, but when I’m back home, I still cut hair at Faisal Barbers. Cutting hair is like sculpture and drawing. Hair is pigment and body is a canvas. The best artwork is always current: the shop allows me to remain invested in the world by constantly interacting with my customers.

‘Cutting hair is like sculpture and drawing. Hair is pigment and body is a canvas’

Until recently, everything I had done as an artist was in east or south London, or abroad. I had never had an opportunity to make something in my own area of west London, and I felt that there was a void here in terms of the arts. Then, in 2018, I was awarded the first ever Annual Art Commission by the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation.  I knew exactly what I wanted to do: I had already written the proposal in my head ten years ago.

My piece ‘The Park Royals’ is a woven photo-tapestry featuring 22 locals. I wanted to show the evolution of its community, so I included two generations of local people and tried to weave them together.

My whole perception of Park Royal was framed by my dad working at the Heinz factory. I would attend their Christmas parties every year, and used to go cycling in the area. There was nothing there. I would ask: Does Park Royal have a heartbeat? Now  I am hopeful of change. For the first time, I am able to turn a mirror to my community and say: This is for you. 

See ‘The Park Royals’ at Brent Civic Centre until the end of the year.

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