Faisal Abdu’Allah is an internationally acclaimed British artist who creates iconographic imagery of power, race, masculinity, violence, and faith to challenge the values and ideologies we attach to those images and to interrogate the historic and cultural contexts in which they originate. Trained as a printmaker, his work evolved out of the interface of photography, printed media, film, installation, and performance.
“Dullah’s” are most likely to be offered in a bar in Johannesburg, South Africa. The transaction would be an illicit one, translating either literally as the trading of ‘stolen goods’ or metaphorically as a sexual dalliance between two people, one or both in an existing relationship with other people. Having a partner already between one or both parties offering a “Dullah” emphasizes the sense of a desire for an encounter that is ‘stolen’. It is both a physical exchange and a moral transgression. Whilst in South Africa during a residency at Gallery Momo in 2009, Abdu’ Allah first heard the term in local use and saw past its colloquial meaning as a casual pick-up line to a more serious truth. The term is underpinned by a denial of the rights of those from whom ‘goods’ (in either sense) are taken illegitimately. The informality of its use thinly conceals the graver implications of the exchange; not only taking what belongs to someone else and infidelity with its wider implications regarding loyalty and trust, but of an extended sense of displacement relating to negated rights also. For Abdu’Allah, the term, “Dullah’s” provoked larger questions of legal rights and moral as well as physical theft that came to the fore during his trip.
In Dullah’s 69, Abdu’Allah etched a series of photographed portraits of individuals he met in South Africa, some of whom told different stories of life under the Apartheid regime whilst others spoke of contemporary post-Apartheid South Africa. Each of the portraits features a front-on, close-up shot of an individual. They are differentiated by the qualities of the subjects’ physical environment; some are mottled with the shade of a nearby tree, or heightened with natural light from the side catching the furrows of a brow, or very slightly teased by the wind displacing hair upon a forehead. Each portrait captures the physical characteristics of the person’s face in intimate detail, from individual unshaven hairs on a chin to wrinkles gathering under the eyes in another.
This attention to precise physiognomy is naturally at odds with the recourse to anonymity and taxonomic generalizations made along legally enforced racial boundaries under Apartheid. The individuals pictured are located in both time and place, yet dislocated by memories of a fractured past.
There is an act of testimony here in these works to both individual and collective memories of trauma. Abdu’Allah ensures that their facial features constitute indelible traces of physical witness by etching his subjects. The process of photographing an image and then transferring it through the reductive exercise of etching onto a new surface through the use of corrosive acid, compounds an act of creation that attests to permanence as well as violence.
The title, Dullah’s 69 speaks to Abdu’Allah’s own presence in South Africa. It is his personal take on a loaded term and a wry extension of stealing back what signifies, that which is stolen already. The sense of dislocation displayed by his sitters resonated with his own experiences of the country. His trip to Johannesburg was the first to sub-Saharan Africa and he considered the journey as an act of return to the continent from where his ancestors had been taken. Abdu’ Allah refers to the trip to South Africa as completing “the geospatial circuit in his family’s history, from Africa to the Caribbean to the UK and back.” Abdu’Allah considers himself and his ancestors as a type of “Dullah’s” or stolen goods. He was, he believes, stolen as part of his ancestral heritage and the reference in the title of the series, Dullah’s 69 is a play on the year of his birth as an arbitrary point of departure in which dates, names and places are all dislocated.
Written by Kate Cowcher and Rachel Newman
Image: Dullah 69, 2010, Photo Etching on Paper