Watch Now: New ‘counter monument’ sculpture on State Street celebrates shared humanity | Arts and Theater

Downtown Madison is not new to the debate over historic monuments. But thanks to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and a UW-Madison art professor, State Street’s iconography is now home to a new kind of monument.

The museum unveiled its newest installation Tuesday evening, “Blu³eprint,” a 12,000-pound limestone sculpture designed by Faisal Abdu’Allah. For Abdu’Allah, it is a deeply personal piece that aims to reimagine the role of identity in public art.

In “Blu³eprint,” Abdu’Allah is seated in a barber’s chair, representing the place where he has formed bonds, celebrated culture and learned about life in his boyhood London.

“The barber shop is constantly evolving,” Abdu’Allah said after the unveiling.

“Every day there’s news. Every day there’s another topic of discussion that is a part of public consciousness,” he said. “I felt that the chair was of great significance to me as an object and for the power that it was able to transform in people’s lives.”

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A fan of encoding meaning into his art, “Blu³eprint” contains two additional meanings both tangible and intangible. The “u” in “Blu³eprint” is to the power of 3, reflecting the three u’s in the Zulu word “Ubuntu,” an African concept referring to the interconnected nature of humanity. One person’s humanity, Abdu’Allah said, is “inextricably bound up” in another’s.

A quote from author James Baldwin is inscribed on the back of a limestone sculpture titled “Blu³eprint” of UW-Madison professor Faisal Abdu’Allah, at right, outside the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

Another more obvious part of the work is a quote from renowned Black author James Baldwin on the back, which reads: “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot love within.”

Discussions of creating “Blu³eprint” began in 2017, when museum staff learned that Abdu’Allah was discussing with his students the nationwide removal of Confederate monuments. For the printmaking professor, simply erasing the statutes from public life didn’t solve the problem. Instead, he envisioned what he called “counter monuments,” which introduced alternative histories to public space.

“He was saying to his students that instead of spending millions of dollars to take these monuments down, invest in artists of color to create new ones,” said Leah Kolb, MMOCA’s curator of exhibitions.

“To me, the piece is about who gets memorialized,” Abdu’Allah said in an interview with the State Journal earlier this month. “Who gets commemorated, and what are the stories we are told?”

From there, MMOCA commissioned the piece and in early 2020 enlisted Madison’s Quarra Stone Co. to carry out the stone-carving process.

Quarra scanned Abdu’Allah with a 3-D scanner, then used computer-operated robots to carve the Indiana limestone. Fine details were carved by stone carver and sculptor Martin Foot.

Abdu’Allah chose to leave some of the marks from the robotic stone-carving equipment on the piece, as evidence of the artistic process.

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Attendees at the unveiling of UW-Madison professor Faisal Abdu’Allah’s limestone sculpture titled “Blu³eprint” get a closer look at the work.

While selecting what material to use for the statue, stone like granite and marble had a “sort of institution attached to it and it doesn’t seem to be negotiable,” Abdu’Allah said.

He eventually settled on Indiana limestone since it better reflected the human experience.

“It aligns itself with the human body, because it comes out of the ground soft and over time it hardens,” the artist remarked. “As you go through life and you learn, you become hardened.”

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UW-Madison professor Faisal Abdu’Allah stands near a limestone sculpture of himself titled “Blu³eprint” during an unveiling event outside the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art on State Street.

The installation of “Blu³eprint” is a precursor to the upcoming exhibition of Abdu’Allah’s work at MMOCA titled “Dark Matter,” opening in September. That exhibit will feature a wide range of Abdu’Allah’s work, including prints and other sculptures.

“It’s his exploration of how people navigate the world based on DNA,” Kolb said.

As for the future of “Blu³eprint” as a permanent fixture on State Street, that is yet to be decided. The city grants the permit on a year-to-year basis, meaning the museum would potentially have to be in a constant state of reapplying.

“The idea is to have it permanent,” Kolb said. “But I think the goal is to have it up certainly through the run of the exhibit.”

State Journal reporter Gayle Worland contributed to this report.


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