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Artists inspiring artists: Abdi Farah's talk at the Arthur Ross Gallery

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Artists inspiring artists: Abdi Farah's talk at the Arthur Ross Gallery

Interview by Gina DeCagna  


My knowledge of the University of Pennsylvania unexpectedly started with reality television. It was the summer of 2010, before my junior year of high school, and my eyes were affixed to the television for each episode of Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. Fourteen contemporary artists from across the nation competed during the show’s inaugural season by making pieces of art within the confines of given “challenges.” They went through rounds of critiques and subsequent eliminations until the last standing artist claimed the grand prize of $100,000 and a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. A recent Penn Fine Arts graduate, Abdi Farah (C’09) impressed me from the beginning of his time on the show. He not only exercised his ambitious technical skills, but compassion in his portrayal of human subjects, which resonated with audiences across the globe. Abdi went on to claim the grand prize as the show’s victor. I, an even younger burgeoning fine artist, went on to pursue my own art in high school while admiring Abdi’s art on the screen. I learned about Penn Fine Arts because of Abdi Farah, and a few years later, in 2012, I inserted myself in the very same educational program at Penn.

On March 4, 2014, Abdi came back to Penn to give an artist talk, cosponsored by the Arthur Ross Gallery and the Penn Art Club, at the Arthur Ross Gallery within Fisher Fine Arts Library. Kenna O’Rourke (C’15) introduced him to a crowd of students, former fine arts professors, and other art appreciators. Abdi mounted himself only temporarily at the podium, as he paced back and forth from the microphone to the screen projections of his artwork. He explained his pieces with an infectious energy, showing a full set of teeth through his grand smiles.

Abdi gave the audience a sampling of pieces created during his time at Penn and his time on Work of Art. Perhaps what was most exciting was when he showed some of his recent work — detailed black-and-white etchings and quick oil-painted sketches of the football-playing high-school youth in New Orleans, where he currently resides.

After his presentation, I met Abdi in person. I told him how much I admired his work through the years, and I interviewed him for this article. Our conversation, discussing life at Penn and as an artist beyond Penn, is transcribed below.
 

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Let’s start with the beginning of your affiliation with Penn. What brought you to Penn?
 

I went to an arts magnet high school in Baltimore, and it was like a very preprofessional arts conservatory — arts all the time — art everything. Most of my classmates went to art colleges like MICA or RISD. But for me, as I started applying to schools, I didn’t want to go to an art school. My art has always been informed by other things. I was thinking about other things I was interested in. I love art, I love the practice, I love learning about art, but I am inspired by other things that I’m learning and reading, so I wanted to go to a great university. I originally had been applying to PAFA [The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts] in Center City, but I also visited Penn. I was like, “I just want to go to Penn. I want to go to a school where people are as passionate about business or medicine as I am about art,” to allow that [type of] environment to inspire me — which it really did.


What was it like working in Addams [Fine Arts Hall] when you went to Penn?
 

Addams was interesting. I loved the studio. I loved my studio-mates there. I had them when I was a junior, and then when I was a senior, and I loved that experience. You also have the architects with the fine artists in there, and I feel like half the time, seeing the architects working all day and night would kind of get me in gear. I was always surprised there were no couches in Addams Hall, so you’re always standing and being tired all the time. We’ve been trying to get one in there for years — but I guess that’s purposeful! [laughs]. It’s like, “keep working! keep working!” [laughs].


At Penn, students take a variety of courses both within and outside their majors. How did you interact with the interdisciplinary nature at Penn?
 

I definitely came into Penn with an interest in all things. Penn has a little of everything, whereas PAFA, for example, is very conservatory. I took a video class, a mixed-media animation class, a graduate drawing seminar, printmaking, and even a Wharton class about product design, which had a mix of engineers, entrepreneurs, and a few artists speckled in. Having several perspectives guides my thinking. I took an English and Religious Studies cross-listed [course] called “The Devil’s Pact in Literature” [RELS 236], and there was a big creative project, where I used my art within the larger sphere of literature and religious studies. I was able to use those things for multiple purposes.


Do you think that [interdisciplinary practice] is more in line with contemporary art, today?


That’s a great question. Yes. Every barrier that’s been on a technical level has kind of been broken — though maybe not quite, I’m sure somebody will surprise me. But I mean, like in the 1900s, it was like “aw, man we can use paint for this, and we can use architecture for this, and we can use the natural environment” — so it was a lot about technical barriers that were being broken. But now, we’re in a time where all those doors are open. It’s more about how artists are using the tools that are in front of them to speak about something. So, you see a lot of artists that use mixes of science and art, or social commentary, or even artists that are straddling the line between being performers and artists. There are artists that are between being philosophers and artists, and artists between businessmen and artists. It’s kind of going reciprocal into a renaissance time —like when you had Da Vinci, who was designing machinery, making portraits, doing science, mapping out the figure, doing the proportions of the body. So, [today,] it’s less of “I’m a painter that just paints.” I mean, there’s still artists that do [just paint] and there always will be — but that’s the cool thing, too. If you want to be that kind of artist, you can. You could specialize all you want. But it’s less about what the artist does [today], and more about telling the world what you’re doing.


Can you talk about some of the gaps between being a student in Fine Arts at Penn versus being an artist in the professional world?


I feel like [having studied at Penn] both informs and guides how I go about being an artist now. There’s also learning how to live life. It’s like, “how do I get out of a structure of deadlines and classes?” The semester structure is really great and convenient. It allows for a lot of learning, but it also has an arbitrary confine to it. I feel like when you get out of school, you’re trying to fit things into that model, and it’s just like, “man, this is taking much longer than three months.” It’s about how to use that [model] and not becoming complacent in it — or becoming completely amorphous — but still allowing some of the rigor and structure of school to carry through in staying focused. As an artist, you always like to be learning things, and you can only make art about what you know. So, if you’re not learning new stuff, your art is in a static place. At Penn, it was great. I was learning new things. Every new thing you learn opens up more options for you, artistically. So, there is a challenge for when you’re outside of school of where you’re getting that information from — whether it’s listening to the news everyday or picking up books and trying to read through them. Maybe I should take my own advice [laughs].


Who have been some people you’ve been looking at for inspiration?


There’s a good friend of mine — he was a grad student here at Penn — Jacolby Satterwhite [MFA’10]. His art is just on another level. He has a drawing base in [his art], but it all also has a performative outlet to it. It’s very idiosyncratic. [He does] almost language-type drawings that he uses as the basis of motion-driven three-dimensional animations that he then interacts with [both] physically and personally. So, it has a video endpoint, the use of his actual body, 3D animation, drawing, and some costumes. I like artists who are doing a bunch of different things. I really love the Dutch artist Folkert de Jong. I love Sterling Ruby’s work, and Ryan Trecartin — he’s another artist who’s on so many different levels by incorporating furniture, geopolitical philosophy, and reality television. His work is as overwhelming as the world we’re in, so that’s great.

I’m [also] really inspired by contemporary musicians — I mean whatever Kanye West is doing, that’s always inspiring and crazy! [laughs.] But I really love Sufjan Stevens. I guess his genre would be folk, but he has some jazz as well and indie rock. It’s kind of indefinable [music]. It’s beautiful singer-songwriter ballads to really orchestral, electronic, synthesized things that break down what music and sound are and visuals that go along with it. I really love Arcade Fire and what they do. I really enjoyed their use of narrative as a unifying artistic element in their last album, Reflektor, within which they could be a little more experimental sonically.

Even someone like Steve McQueen, the director of 12 Years a Slave [2013], comes from a very strong fine-arts background that has allowed him to move into big studio, budget-driven film projects. He still has an artist’s sensibility with what he’s doing. So that’s inspiring to me.


In your presentation, you were talking about using an El Greco painting as a reference in one of your recent paintings. You were thinking about the distortion of bodily proportions and the pronounced emotion through the exaggerated facial expression. Can you talk a bit about drawing inspiration from a historical master like El Greco?


I love El Greco. For some reason, I keep coming back to him. There’s something strange about his work — his work seems ahead of its time. I feel like art is in this continuum, I feel a kinship with artists of all times and generations — even though [their art] might have been done hundreds of years ago. You can feel yourself saying, “aw man, I’m doing the same thing they were doing.”

I don’t think we’ve gotten better as a culture or made better art than past times. I think we’re all making it together. Artists have a finite lifespan, so each artist is going through that journey [of living as an artist] in a really similar way. So, even if it’s someone a thousand years ago, five hundred years ago, or two hundred years from now [into the future], we’re all going to be thinking about the same things.


In my studies of your art and your thought processes behind it, it seems to me that you’re speaking to a universal audience, but grounding your artistic voice in specific things.


That’s exactly what I’m going for. I want to make work that resonates with a lot of people. That being said, I think the most powerful way to go about [the universal] is to dive into what is really, wholeheartedly, specifically, idiosyncratically interesting to you — diving into something very individual and then exploding that outward.


It shows through in your technique, too — like how you use yourself as model in your representational pieces, but then you try to obscure that, as you said in your presentation.


I feel like that’s where my power lies: in the fact that I have a more thorough perspective if I start from the personal. I might be moved or inspired by something that’s happening in the world — like the situation happening in Ukraine — but I don’t really have a [direct] connection to it. So, if I’m trying to make a work about [Ukraine], it’s kind of just speculation. So I have to go with the subject matter that is most specific [to me] and that I have the most credential to talk about, and hopefully, through that, to expand it in a way that anyone can see it from my perspective. I start with me and make it into something that’s less about me.


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In a lot of your recent work, you’ve been interested in football and getting at the physicality of it with paint. I’m taking a class through the Kelly Writers House right now [ENGL 274 with Al Filreis] in which [Friday Night Lights author and journalist] Buzz Bissinger visited our class as a Fellow. In hearing about your process of exploring the complexities of football culture by painting the players, I thought, “It’s another Buzz Bissinger, except he’s a fine artist!” You’ve followed high-school football players around like a journalist to create art. What’s it like being a visual journalist?
 

I’m jealous [about Buzz Bissinger visiting] — I went to school five years too early! [laughs.] The work came from this initial curiosity and interest in [football] and somewhat [of an] affiliation. I love all sports in general, so I had that kind of affinity for it, but I wanted to dive in deeper. I wasn’t really sure what kind of work it would be, and it’s still changing — the work I have done so far kind of feels like sketches for something better and bigger that I’m working toward. There were surprising elements that kind of came through just being there, learning [about] the players, being around the sport, watching the games up close, being in the stands, being around the families, being around all that. Little specific points make it interesting. Those specifics are the roots of art: it’s rooted in representation and then can move towards abstraction. When you see those details and nuances, [you understand that] those are things you can’t make up in your mind. Often, what we make up is not as interesting as what is there, so it’s really about spending time with the subject matter.
 

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So your work explores certain conceptual frameworks while being grounded in representation?


First of all, I think all artwork is conceptual to a point. All artwork is abstract to a point. It’s all an abstraction of something that was real or something that was a thought in someone’s head. It’s always being mediated through something. For me, it’s about a balance. There’s a triangulated balance of interests: there’s something conceptually interesting to me, physically interesting to me, or process-oriented that’s appealing to me — like what I want to do with the paint, for example. So, there’s the physical art and then there’s what limitations there are for me creatively, so that I work within those limitations. Physically, I love just making things, experimenting with new materials, and painting and sculpting. Then, I try to couch all of that within what I’m interested in conceptually, and then there’s always this limitation of how to get [it] into the work. For me, representation in drawing is kind of that limitation. I start with what I’m good at, which is kind of just receiving information and trying to translate it and draw it, and then use that information as the framework to then experiment with material and also think about the subjects. I use representation as the starting point and then try to fulfill my artistic and conceptual desires within that framework. All artists must find some sort of entrance into making the work and then go from there.


What’s a typical day like being Abdi Farah?


I have a dream day, and then I have a day that usually happens [laughs]. I’m gaining more and more of an appreciation of how difficult it is to be an artist — just perpetually being an artist. It’s really tough. I’m a pretty extroverted person. I gain energy by being around other people, and oftentimes, as an artist, that’s just not what’s [available]. It’s just me in my studio by myself, and it’s like working in a vacuum. You learn a lot about yourself and the art as well, so that is a gift, but it is a challenge. For me, the ideal is putting time into the work, but also realizing that the work isn’t everything. It’s really hard to make art outside of some larger life context, so the times I have been most productive are when I have other things that are pulling me around. I have other responsibilities to other people I’m working with, and that makes my personal practices benefit a little bit. The times when I’m focused only on the art, the art suffers. I do envy those artists that can just go into a blank room forever and just make and make and make, but my art is about people. It’s about life. It has to be a response to life.


What’s it like in New Orleans?


It’s so great to be down there. I grew up in Maryland. I went to school in Philly. I lived in New York. So, it’s kind of this tristate area that’s all really similar. Down there, the things that they value are things that are just completely different than up here. So, as an artist, it causes you to see things differently — with new eyes. It’s hard to put your finger on. [For example,] the way people use their time there. In the Northeast, everything is kind of centered on work — the schedule of when you eat, when you have fun, when you go the movies or go to church is all based on that typical nine-to-five schedule — whereas, in New Orleans, work is this kind of obscure thing. There’s a rare subset of people who work a nine-to-five [day]. Part of that is due to systematical unemployment issues, but then, there are people who work at night. Most of their economy is from the hospitality and entertainment industry — many people work in bars or as jazz musicians or as artists. It’s just a different speed [than that of the Northeast] in how things are done and how things are thought about. There’s the importance of community, sports, cooking, and shopping.

I like it, and I realize how much I’m not from there. My sensibility is different, coming from the Northeast. As an artist, it’s always important to be slightly uncomfortable. So I’m not running away from that; I’m trying to embrace it. I love New York to death — eventually, I see myself coming back there — but everything was kind of made for me [there]. Everything made sense [for whom] I already was. It wasn’t so much a challenge to be something different. Being around people who aren’t like you is a great gift. It’s really easy to not do that in America, and that might work if you just want a normal life, but as an artist, you should definitely be around people who have different views, who you might disagree with, who just live life in a completely different way than you. My life as an artist probably seems weird to them. Even though there are artists in New Orleans, telling people “I’m an artist” is kind of weird down there, where it’s like, “what does that mean?” — whereas, in New York, people know exactly what that means. You don’t have to justify it all.


Do you have any advice to Penn students pursuing untraditional career paths?


Realize that it’s going to be untraditional, and it’s going to be tough. Whenever you’re trying to do something that’s not normal — that’s not already in some prescribed system — you have to have so much more self-initiative and self-drive. I don’t have a boss — which is a gift, but it’s also super difficult, because with anything I do, I have to tell myself to do it. There’s also realizing that you don’t have to be some sort of island — there are other people. Reach out and talk to them, and just try to be smart about it. Learn from people who have done it before. Surround yourself with people who are currently doing it and people who are at your level trying to get started as well.


Edited by Kenna O’Rourke


Gina DeCagna is a rising junior in the College of Arts & Sciences, double-majoring in English and Fine Arts. She’s the founder and editor-in-chief of Symbiosis, an editorial assistant at Jacket2 based within the Kelly Writers House, and a former arts editor of 34th Street Magazine. When she’s not making (or responding to) some type of art — literary, visual, or otherwise — she’s wandering around Philadelphia for inspiration.