Abdi on the Rise
Raised by his art-loving mom, Abdi Farah (b. 1987) was introduced to the arts at an early age. Growing up in Baltimore, a city with a rich artistic and cultural presence, he recalls being around art all the time. Farah remembers visiting art galleries and institutions such as the Walters Art Museum (formerly the Walters Art Gallery) and the Baltimore Museum of Art. His earliest memories of making art are when he went to work with his mom, a college professor and sat in a quiet corner to draw with markers and crayons. “I grew up always drawing,” he says. “That’s kind of who I was.” This love of drawing manifested into a skill and passion that led him to attend the George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology High School, where he focused on studio art. It wasn’t until he won the NAACP ACT-SO Gold Medal in painting that he realized how much artistic talent he had, and that he could be an artist for a living. Prior to this realization, Farah was certain he was going to play professional basketball, a huge part of his adolescence. “My buddies and I worshipped it,” he says.
Continuing his academic career, Farah matriculated at the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in fine arts and minored in religious studies. “I went to Penn because growing up, my mom and I used to listen to NPR all the time, to Tavis Smiley, who would always have Michael Eric Dyson on his show, and I love Michael Eric Dyson. At the end [of the broadcast], it would always say Dyson was a professor in the religious studies department at the University of Pennsylvania,” he says. Farah knew then that he had to go to school there, where he was exposed to lots of art history, took religion courses such as “Styles of Atheism” and “The Devil’s Pact in Literature, Music, and Film” and studied things such as hip-hop culture and Africana studies. Farah’s diverse curriculum greatly impacted his art. His academic classes really started to fuel what he was thinking about art-wise. “Every time I went into class, I would conjure all of these images of things that would then be the beginning thoughts of visual art pieces,” he says.
After graduating in May 2009, Farah got a gig with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, teaching an art course to a group of high school boys. It was a temporary position with a very short shelf life. Fortunately, he soon learned that the cable network Bravo was holding a casting call for a new reality television show called Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. Farah was not only chosen to be one of the fourteen contestants on the show, but also survived each weekly challenge and won the entire competition. Farah was awarded a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum as part of his prize.
Farah works primarily in oil painting, sculpture and drawing. Influenced heavily by Michelangelo (1475–1564), Rodin (1840–1917) and Bernini (1498–1680), his sculptures are hybrids that take key aspects of the classical human form and infuse them with expressive body language conveying a range of emotions, and sometimes they are adorned with throwback Nike sneakers. He creates the molds and casts these life-size sculptures in his studio, comfortably located in the basement and garage of his mom’s house in York, PA. The self-reflexive nature of his work allows Farah to almost always be his own model. When asked about this choice, he says, “I use myself a lot in my work because I am always around. I have very clear objectives as to what sort of expressions or emotions I want to try and convey.” He also insists that his art is most powerful when it is has a strong subjective presence and is charged with his own feelings, history and interests. “I think art is really only about showing others how you personally see things, what your mind looks like. Everything else is journalism or documentation,” he says.
Farah’s use of objects, particularly sneakers, in his paintings and sculptures, such as in his piece Libation, 2010, is another way of adding a bit of his own history to each piece. “I was obsessed with shoes,” he recalls. As a kid and teenager who played basketball, he loved sneakers. The two are almost synonymous. For him, the sneakers represent specific moments in his life. “I can remember how old I was, what grade I was in, when a particular shoe came out and was popular,” he says. “I can remember how much a particular pair cost and how much more that was than I could afford.” Aesthetically, he adds, “I just think they’re really beautiful objects. They have a dash of color here, a splash there. They are so artistically creative and they have that cultural connection as well.” Farah explains that the sneakers are also representative of the objects in our society in which we have embedded meaning and specific significance.
Though much of Farah’s work is about him “looking back at the proclivities and weird stuff” in which he was so incredibly engrossed during adolescence, he is also very interested in portraying the duality of a moment—the moment between polar opposite emotions or feelings. The basketball player sculptures he created for the finale of Work of Art are supercharged with such emotion. Their facial expressions and body language are screaming out, but the viewer is not really sure whether each figure is experiencing pleasure or pain. The uncertainty of the moment’s emotion adds to the power of the piece. This ambiguity is most interesting to Farah as he attempts to depict split seconds between order and chaos, comedy and tragedy. For his latest batch of sculptures, Farah is strongly influenced by thermal imagery. He is experimenting with pouring different colored resins into the molds. The mixture of colors “speak[s] to the beauty of life inside [the body] that you can’t see physically but is always ever-present,” he says.
Farah’s life-size drawing Baptism, 2010, recently sold at the Phillips de Pury contemporary art auction, reminds viewers of Farah’s love of drawing. This seemingly larger-than-life drawing features a horizontal Farah levitating high above the paper’s edge. Again we are confronted with uncertainty, as the figure could be sleeping or dead. The dark dust particles cascading from the floating figure like lingering vespers from a star suggest that he is rising, but we can never be certain.
What’s next for Farah? “Working on a lot of art. I am not really sure there’s anything but art,” he says. Look out for new sculptures, paintings and drawings, as well as perhaps a few animations, definitely collaborations with other artists, musicians and dancers, and maybe even sneaker designs? Well, we can hope for that last one! The possibilities are endless and the future is bright for this talented, young artist.
All quotes from Abdi Farah, in conversation with Dominic Hackley on November 11, 2010.
This article was originally published in the Winter/Spring 2011 issue of Studio magazine.