Interview with Abdala Faye
Reading Abdala Faye’s website can be a bit daunting. You learn that he speaks seven languages, sold out his paintings for his first show in Paris when he was was only twelve years old, has Basquiat-esque dreadlocks, plays the hand drum, and has work exhibited across four continents. Whaa? Yup, that’s what I thought.
Here in Chillicothe, Ohio, Abdala stands out immediately. His radiant smile feels like a big hug; his demeanor is youthful yet grounded. Barely being five feet tall, his NBA basketball player stature is simply otherworldly. Naturally, I felt a bit starstruck when I met him.
Similarly, when put against other paintings, Abdala’s work stands out instantly. It’s impossible to take your eyes off of the psychedelic brushstrokes and vivid textures. When Abdala came in town to set up his work for his upcoming exhibition, I caught up and chatted with him about his career, his impression of the art world, and his inspirations as well as aspirations. The interview is minorly edited for clarity.
Hi Abdala! I’m going to start with the most basic questions here. For how long have you been painting?
I actually started painting when I was 14, but began drawing when I was around 12. It evolved from drawings to paintings.
Were you a natural painter?
I was introduced to paintings from an American friend who knew my father. She was a mentor who really pushed me into painting by buying me tools and supplies. That’s how I got into using acrylic and I’ve been using it ever since.
So is acrylic your medium of choice?
Yeah, I’m more used to working with acrylic, but I like to try other mediums and find ways to use them to fit my style.
Has money ever been an issue for you as an artist, especially in the current financial climate?
Yeah, the beginning was definitely tough, but I guess I’ve been lucky enough to survive as an artist who has been recognized and introduced. With no formal training, I was the only artist in my family. In fact, I didn’t pick up art until I moved in with my parents. I had stayed with my grandmother in Senegal until she passed away when I was 12. Because I wasn’t used to the big city life, I stayed inside by myself a lot and that’s how it started. I don’t know where or how…
What other kind of obstacles did you have to overcome as a young artist?
Acceptance from the formal group that had professional training—usually they were skeptical of artists who came out of nowhere with no training.
With no training, who or what influenced your art?
Nobody, really. The paradox is that I went through a lot of phases where I used many things without knowing who else was doing it or if it even existed, which is funny because at some point I told myself, “Hey! I can become a star!,” but then somebody else would say, “Hey, you paint like this guy.” People told me that the last phase I went through resembled Salvador Dalí’s work. And then maybe around three to four years ago, I started to get into knowing all the artists, the masters and so forth. I have a really strong photographic memory, so whenever I see something, I paint it.
I wouldn’t go to shows, or I wouldn’t go to my own shows. (Laughter)
Why is that? Were you embarrassed, nervous…?
Yeah, maybe. I was shy before, and I don’t know, I overcame the shyness because I learned to interact with people and you know, I started going to galleries more often. So it’s been a good journey.
You mentioned that acceptance was hard to get around. Since you have traveled quite a bit, have you noticed any difference in demand among different communities of art, such as regional preferences?
Yeah. I think that when it comes to art, I don’t see any solid boundaries or specific communities. They are all individuals. And that’s why personally I respect all the artists, no matter what they do or how they do it. What I concentrate on is the time and what brought them to do what they do, and that’s what I appreciate and respect. I don’t judge by the style; it’s the contents and it’s up to them. Because sometimes people make the mistake of categorizing artists by putting them into groups, but there is none! To me, the only group that I see is the whole.
In the video produced by Osha Studios, you were mixing paint with sawdust for your base coat. How did that come about?
I just came up with it. I didn’t really start to use it until two years ago and it’s because I had to show it to the public and I wanted to make sure that it would last and be good on the canvass. So I did lots of research and sampling, and now I’m confident to use it.
What are you doing now and do you have any aspirations for the future?
I’m working on my art. As I’m getting older, my paintings are getting simpler and I’m just taking it to the essence and putting paint up on the canvass. There’s more and more colors, as well as words…
I just saw the movie Basquiat (dir. Julian Schnabel). You and Basquiat seem to have many things in common.
Yeah, I love Basquiat! I love his approach to art and freedom. That’s what I’ve always been into, you know, freedom of whatever.
What is the art community in Senegal like?
Art is pretty strong all over Africa like that of everywhere else, but they’ve definitely become more global over the past few years.
Wonderful. Thank you so much, Abdala!
Interviewed by Connie Q.