A little over a year ago, Penn alum Abdi Farah (‘09) was napping in Fisher Fine Arts. But since winning the first season of Bravo’s reality art competition, Work of Art, he’s become a household name, scored a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum and pocketed a cool hundred grand. Street sits down with Abdi to talk about Donald Trump, abnormal psych and the sweet taste of outperforming self-important Whartonites.
Street: It's safe to say that after winning Work of Art, a lot of artists would kill to be in your position. How do you think that being validated so early in your career will affect your work?
Abdi Farah: Winning the show has given me the freedom to really be an artist — at least for the next year, there will be no adults telling me to get a real job. However, the fact that I’ve gained a lot of critics who equated the show to a teen competition because of my age has put a lot of pressure on me. The fact that I’ve gotten so many bad reviews is really motivating — people know me because of TV, but I have the mindset they should know of my work anyway.
Street: How did you hear about the show?
AF: I graduated in May 2009 and was living with some friends in Philly. I never read my Penn or listserv emails but I was sitting with my roommate at my breakfast table, eating scrambled eggs on a Monday morning in early July, and he told me that Josh Mosley, the head of the Fine Arts department, had sent the opportunity to the FNAR listserv along with a statement that he didn’t want to see any of us on it. Needless to say I didn’t listen.
Street: In terms of the structure of the show, did you feel that having challenges every week restricted the creative process?
AF: I actually think it was the opposite. Because you were forced to be in these situations that you yourself hadn’t chosen, it forced you to think in ways completely different from how you normally would and it was almost as if you were working from your subconscious. It was one of the most refreshing artistic experiences of my life and so much more fun than working in my own studio.
Street: How did your time at Penn influence you as an artist?
AF: The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) was actually my first choice of schools, but the school is very strict and small and I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to be at a University and to live the true college life. Choosing Penn was the best decision I ever made; every class blew my mind and affected my art in ways I wouldn’t have gotten at PAFA.
Street: Which classes at Penn did you most enjoy?
AF: If I took 40 classes at Penn, 36 of them were amazing. I was actually most influenced by my non-art classes. I minored in religious studies and even though I’m Christian, it was amazing to hear about why people chose their ideologies in Michael Eric Dyson’s "Styles of Atheism" class. I loved my Psych classes, where you could learn a new way that people are messed up in every class, and also really enjoyed the African-American and Hip-Hop history classes that I took.
Street: Who are your biggest influences?
AF: Definitely my mom, who surrounded me with good art and good thinking; President Obama, because on top of all that he’s done, he doesn’t let negative detractors get in his way; and professors at Penn like Dyson, who are focused on getting to the bottom of things. I’m open to pulling inspiration from the best of everything — I take pieces from anyone in pop culture or anyone who is doing it, going for it and is excellent at what they do. I’m influenced by Donald Trump, and the music industry, I’m really into Kid Cudi (too bad I was too old to see him at Fling). Even though I don’t listen to her music, I also appreciate Taylor Swift.
Street: Did you have a place on campus where you felt most inspired?
AF: I took a lot of naps in the Fine Arts Library and got a lot of work done in Van Pelt — all of the people that are always in there sort of forced me to be productive. Besides that, I loved getting on my bike and discovering new areas. I would start out looking for supplies and my trips would take me to corners of South and North Philly that most students don’t get to see.
Street: What advice can you give to Penn students who, like you, are interested in pursuing more uncertain career paths?
AF: Find what you love to do and go for it full-steam. Don’t listen to the lies that school feeds you about jobs — there are not secure routes in life. I’ve heard horror stories at Penn where people have wanted to write plays but didn’t because their parents wanted them to be pre-med. All of my own roommates were in Wharton and laughed when one semester I took a class called “Color.” They were all like "Abdi, you're going to be living off us after graduation." A year later thankfully that's not the case. If you make $1,000 less than you could have but are happy with what you’re doing the money doesn’t matter.
Street: How has your work changed since graduating?
AF: As awesome as Penn was, it was still a school and its hard to develop as an artist when you have so many other classes and obligations. When you’re in school, your work will always have a bit of school in it, your being graded and your professors are expecting specific things. A year out, my work has changed for the better; I’ve just been trying to be a professional artist and work in my studio every day.
Street: We recently saw your show at the Brooklyn Museum and found the sculptures to be especially powerful. What is your favorite medium?
AF: I have recently been doing a lot of sculpture and three-dimensional work. I didn’t do it much while I was at Penn because of the lack of space, but I got to do it on the show and got very excited about it. The sculptures in my Brooklyn Museum show opened up a lot of creative doors for me, and I’m excited to bring some of those new ideas to fruition. The prize money has helped because sculpture is so cost-prohibitive.
Street: Jerry Saltz, art critic and one of the judges on Work of Art, actually did a lecture with Jeffrey Deitch (gallerist and director of LACMA) in conjunction with the ICA and Wharton in 2008. Did you see it?
AF: Yes and it was terrifying! In his part of the discussion [Saltz] said that only ten percent of artists would get discovered and that all of us at the talk should just quit. When I saw that the same guy who had told me to give up in the Hunstman G5 lecture hall a year earlier was a judge on the show, I immediately felt like I had no place being there.
Street: We loved your cartoons for the DP!
Abdi Farah: I loved drawing them. Junior and senior year weren’t as fun after I stopped doing the comics. Classes were easy compared to working for the DP- once, my editor couldn’t get me on my phone at like three a.m. and he called my mom!