Chasing Identity: An Interview with Faisal Abdu’Allah

Rehaana Manek

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Walking around in London is like walking around the world, but it is also a place where difference is often highlighted as a site of hate and confusion. Youth from the global diaspora are constantly renegotiating their identities and points of contention in this large “global city”, as well as their roles as citizens, others, and youth in a post 9/11 Britain. Their responses and negotiation of identity can be seen all over London in the form of youth and community collectives, social movements and through different modes of representation and expression.

One such creative endeavor is on now at theNational Portrait Gallery as a collaborative project between London based artist Faisal Abdu’Allah and the Chasing Mirrors Collective. The exhibit called “Chasing Mirrors” focuses on the issues of identity, experience, representation and belonging that Arabic-speaking youth face in Britain. The Collective includes three Muslim groups focusing on different issues specific to diasporic youth in Britain. The groups are Al-Nisa, a women-managed organization focusing on British Muslim identity located in Brent; Paiwand, an Afghan community organization that centers on Afghani refugees and is based in Barnet; and finally Tallo, a community organization from Ealing that works with the Somali community including refugees and asylum seekers.

Chasing Mirrors is a multimedia/multi-medium based project focusing on youth identity in London. The exhibit itself is set up with three constantly changing plasma screens showing the amalgamation of the faces of members of the collective. The purpose is to show differences and similarities between them. Additionally, Abdu’Allah asks members of the collective different questions about themselves like their favorite food, who they would raise from the dead, their star sign and what makes them laugh, placing the responses on a large composite board. We interview Faisal Abdu’Allah and reveal some of his inspirations for the project as well as some of the greater social questions his exhibit raises.still-from-story-chain-2

Worldtown: What was your initial inspiration for the Chasing Mirrors Project?

Faisal Abdu’Allah: Inspiration is my pure unadulterated indulgence with the single component that of the human gaze, which has the unique ability to reflect so much about who we are and what we feel through the gaze.

WT: Why Chasing Mirrors?

FA: As a young child I would spend hours looking at my own reflection not through vanity but to try and comprehend what I was and was this reflection true. This constant question coupled with youthful self-doubt kept me chasing the reflection to try and contain it and transform it.

WT: By amalgamating physical points of difference from individuals in the collective what did you seek to achieve or to discuss with your audience?

FA: A number of issues were discussed [regarding] collective identities, perceived representation and the changing face of a youthful London the answer to all of their social ills became evident in the groups collective response in forming the composite images.

WT: How do you feel large-scale visuals or multimedia tools better illustrate your point?

FA: Multimedia was a primary component as so many of us mediate our daily lives through the moving image, our sensitivity and focus has been refined to screens and this piece in particular walked and talked a similar language. Scale is complex as I don’t’ believe bigger is better but scale allows the artist to manipulate the viewers spatial relationship with the work.

WT: What links did you want to highlight between the individual and personal objects?

FA: I don’t think it is apparent that the objects are connected to the individuals on the initial encounter with the show they are generic line drawings but on departure upon reading the text in the back space only then are you enlightened of the personal connection of the objects and the subject. It illustrates the identity through anonymity; you see them first as forms and with the information on the way out you begin to associate them with a person or a part of a person

WT: What is the message, or perhaps dialogue about identity, and more specifically ethnic identities in Britain that you wanted to express with this exhibit?

FA: Difference is a construct, the same way we look, attach, assume and judge the photograph with all our earthly and moral values but the reality… does not exist.

WT: Your work is described as “cross[ing] the borders of photography, the printed image and lens-based installation. Interested in brokering disparate worlds” – how do you describe your work in Chasing Mirrors and your art in general through your own lens?

FA: The lens becomes the medium that gives me access to collectives and spaces that my body with an outstretched hand could not be greeted. People react when they realize you hold a tool that immortalizes them and enables the trace to be recorded.

WT: How do you feel your work and the work in Chasing Mirrors will reshape or recreate (if it will) public perception about ethnic identity and Muslim identity in Britain? And further how do you hope it will affect public perception?

FA: That race is a construct invented by some to keep there feet planted on the throats of the ones being described. Chasing should be a breath of fresh air to contemporary youthful England especially London

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CHASING MIRRORS is on at the National Portrait Gallery now until the 10th of January, 2010.