Faisal Abdu’allah: on money

Artist and barber Faisal Abdu’allah shares a highly personal account of his relationship with money.

‘…..For the love of money
People will steal from their mother
For the love of money
People will rob their own brother
For the love of money
People can’t even walk the street
Because they never know who in the world they’re gonna beat…’
O’Jays ‘For The Love of Money’: Written by Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff and Anthony Jackson

Friday has finally arrived will I get that Action Man from the Toy Centre I so longed for. My father sits at the dining table producing the brown envelope that contains his wages for that week wrapped around a white pay slip. He puts the money on the table and between him and my mother they begin to divide the money into the weekly necessities. There is a ring at the door a smartly dressed Caucasian man with tortoise shell glasses and an aquiline nose asks for my father in formal address.

He is holding a leather holdall and what appears to be a red note book with an image of two buildings that I had seen around the corner on my way to school. It’s the insurance man. My father pays him £8.50 he smiles ticks the book and bids us farewell, ‘same time next week’ he says as he walks through the gate. Back at the table my father’s portly pay packet now looks like quite gaunt as my hopes of my Action Man seem to slowly dwindle.

Another ring at the door it’s Mr Johnson, a tall strapping man with a cool chocolate milk complexion. An old school friend of my parents when they were growing up in Jamaica. Mum greets him very differently from the insurance man, invites him in and offers him a glass of Sanatogen wine. They go through the usual polite chitter chatter regarding their respective families, then he gets down to business. Mr Johnson has come around as it is my parents Pardner draw (some call it Susu).

The Pardner is an informal financial system that was brought to Jamaica by African slaves, and was originally used as a device to purchase their freedom. In England  during the 1960’s numerous friends and colleague’s purchased their homes, cars and funded small business ventures through this financial model. Simply because the banks were very reluctant to lend immigrants from the Caribbean any form of capital. This instilled an important discipline regarding money and the Mr Wright ‘Hustle’ (more of him later) was what I needed next; to work on the ‘Flow’.

Mr Johnson pulled out a huge sum of money and began to count it at the kitchen table. Now it all made sense why he would come around like the insurance man but he had other savers that they paid every week and each week someone would receive a Pardner draw. If you paid ten pounds a week and the Pardner ran for 10 weeks you would be paid a hundred pounds at any point in that ten week period. The only proviso is you keep paying until the ten week period is up which means everyone gets their ‘draw’. Mr Johnson being the banker would also receive a ‘drink’ each time but at the discretion of the draw benefactor that week.  My Action Man is on the cards in my fathers play pile which consists of money for clothes, toys and a trip to the Barbers; which is where I’ll introduce you to Mr ‘Wright on the money’ in my next blog.

As a young boy in 70’s England,  if you referred back to images of the Black community you saw well groomed men in sharp tonic suits yet very little in the way of black barber shops. This was mainly because they were generally set up in the homes of the barbers. My first experience was Mr Wright who had an Aladdin’s cave at the back of his house, as I walked in with my father you would see on the new color TV Dickie Davis presenting World of Sport; over his commentary you would have to contend with the shouts of the domino players screaming their turn, but don’t forget the sound of Jimmy Cliff playing on the cassette player.

Smoking was all the rage so you could imagine the cacophony of smoke, cologne and Mrs Wright’s fried chicken; he sold beers and cigarettes and had a good life. His home was paid for much quicker than his peers and everything was cash.  He would always remonstrate to his less well off clients ‘only spend what you can afford to lose!’ This very simple model took me through my school days, forging the school dinner passes enabled me to leave school at lunch time to buy biscuits from the local shop for 20p. On my return I would sell them individually for 5p each at break time which made me a comfortable living right through my school years. I was lending money to my school friends on odd occasions because I was always flush from the biscuit hustle.

My love affair with the barber shop never ended. Some years later my father would take me to Mr Wright’s shop, and I clearly saw the product of his hard work. Observing the marking of the hair line and shaping of the Afro felt like I was watching Rodin sculpt the ‘Thinker‘; being an individual that could also use a pencil the process was not far removed from the drawing process.

During 1989 I learned to cut whilst studying Fine Art in the USA.  On my return the spirit of Mr Wright began to work through me. In my final year of my degree I had a part time job with Marks and Spencer, however they would not allow me to work Saturdays only so that I could focus on my final year show so I handed in my notice.  Instead I went to work part time in my local barber shop as they had heard of this young guy who was already cutting his friends in his parents home  – wild and eccentric designs that the older hands could not do. Working at the shop on Saturdays helped fund my studies and buy material for my art works.

Graduating with my MA (RCA) the world was clearly at my feet, a head full of Tolstoy and Kant made me turn my nose up at what had funded me through my studies. Setting up a studio in Brixton with a number of high profile shows lined up and commissions galore seduced me to believe this would pay for the up keep of the space. Soon the work would slow down as the patrons became familiar with me and my work and yes the money dried up. With no ‘Flow’ I was soon back in the barber shop this time using a talent that came naturally to help bank roll (Pardner) a life of security.

One day a young man sat in my chair and began to tell me about my financial trajectory based on how many haircuts he had observed me do in comparison to my lazier associates. The fact that I ate my prepared lunch, walked home and did not drink or smoke. He was a financial adviser and made me conscious of investment and planted the seeds of real estate in my mind. After some years, the barber shop came up for sale. I had put away enough for a deposit but the original owner wanted to go halves. We agreed did all the surveys  and spoke with the Bank Manager. Then I received a call from the landlord who asked if I was still buying as he had seen papers without my name on it. I called my partner who quite callously remarked he was buying it on his own. I put the phone down conscious of nothing but a void – all of my work and effort had been shattered. I was consoled by my mother who said ‘St Paul’s is not the only church’. A renewed sense of purpose based on my mother’s proverb enable me to walk the neighborhood and find an empty shop 300 yards away!  The landlord took eighteen messages and four visits to his estate agent before I was allowed to view the inside. It was derelict with a good size floor I quickly made a visual calculation of how many chairs could fit working out my basic weekly income from rented chairs before asking him his rate. We stood in the shop whilst he told me his rent with a clause of a rent review every two years an alarm bell went off this meant every two years he will raise the rent and be always be in my life squeezing the life blood out of a small business. I told him I would take it to ensure I was not going to be played again and then called my financial advisor.

I told him when I worked out the 15 year lease calculating all the rent I would pay not including the rent reviews surely must accrue to more than the value of the shop, what were his thoughts if I were to make an offer to buy! The financial advisor agreed and I then spoke with the Landlord again who  agreed to sell, I was moving  in the right direction. Valuations were done and came in very low, good for me but bad for the landlord.  He was slightly irritated and would not budge. My financial advisor set up a meeting with the bank and they agreed to lend on the strength of the valuation, but I was still ten grand short!  The cash I had was rolled into the deposit and the surplus made from my arts commissions were going into my refurbishment and fit out.

How was I going to make this work? My broker came up with various solutions but as a first time buyer with no assets there was no chance of a re-mortgage, the property was really a good deal and the landlord was quickly becoming impatient. I met him for coffee and played the only ace that I had. I said I could not pay his valuation but would be prepared to pay an agreed shortfall when the shop was up and running.  Would he agree….

The purchase of The Shop enabled me to reconcile to aspects of my practice as an artist and barber. Upstairs in the newly refurbished space Faisal Barbers of London was where real life was critiqued through a series of questions pertaining to class, ownership and rites of passage.

The Shop became the road map to my financial stability and the Studio is the haven that dis-assembles the life upstairs and creates talismanic art works as a bi-product, each one a true testament to my uncompromising and critical analysis of the community I live and work in.

There were times when curators had to be the purveyors of bad news regarding projects we had discussed for months on end with proposal after proposal and the potential sale of several works shelved. Then, my early memories of disappointment would slowly creep back into my thoughts, but my mother’s quote about St Paul still filled me optimism.

Barbers have an obsession with money as it is the only way they can reconcile the value of their time.  It does not arrive on the 31st of the month but on the 35th minute of the service, its immediate and fair. Their entire life is calculated via a simple process, adding up their annual expenditure dividing it by fifty two and then seven to arrive at a daily rate that they must achieve to balance the books.

The Barber Shop has always been a space for micro entrepreneurs of designer clothes, DVD’s and homemade health drinks that promise to encourage one’s libido – the list is endless. Each time a product is peddled the barber is doing the sums; have they made enough to warrant this purchase, can they buy this and move it on by the end of the day to another client, is it a copy, is it stolen goods?  Quick thinking allied to a stock brokers quick wit is what is needed for a profitable day! This is the mind set of the street mathematician.

As I draw to a close I cannot help but acknowledge the people who made me who I am, the insurance salesman, Mr Johnson, Mr Wright and my parents. Money brought us all together and pushed us apart but it also enabled opportunity and laughter. The O’Jays talked about the love of money and what people are prepared to do for it – fitting words for the time. However the humble analysis by Prince is something I only wish I could have penned myself:

Money don’t matter 2 night (no, don’t matter)
It sure didn’t matter yesterday (yesterday)
Just when u think u’ve got more than enough
That’s when it all up and flies away
That’s when u find out that u’re better off
Makin’ sure your soul’s alright (make certain that your soul’s alright)
Cuz money didn’t matter yesterday,
it sure don’t matter 2 night
‘Money don’t Matter Tonight’: written by Prince


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