Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou

Hurvin Anderson’s Ode to Black Barbering

Hurvin Anderson: Salon Paintings at the Hepworth Wakefield, 26th May – 5th November 2023.

Open WaterCaleb Azumah Nelson, Viking, 2023, pp.160, £9.99.

‘You know you can be free here…This is ritual, shrine, ecstatic recital.’ So says the narrator of Caleb Azumah Nelson’s novel, Open Water, when describing the main character’s experience of a barbershop. Sitting back in the chair, the apron draped over his shoulders, the buzz of clippers busy in the background, Azumah Nelson’s character feels ‘safe’ and ‘a semblance of control’. This is a place where he, as a young Black British man, can ‘be loud and wrong and right and quiet.’ A place where he can be seen and heard without battle. A place where the dangers and daily denigrations of the outside world are kept at bay.

This is the barbershop, a space more communal than commercial, more sacred than secular too. A point of peace and calm in the internal storm that forms the stunning second person narrative of Azumah Nelson’s novel, the barbershop is also a vibrant social scene, a site to connect diverse people whilst cutting their hair. Business is not so much about the rip-roaring trade in fades and shaves, but in the mental and personal health of Black men, in the bonding of brothers, in the relaxed and easy exchanges between barber and client. Though the novel was published in 2021, this open secret of the barbershop as a sacral, social, fraternal space has been known and celebrated by Black British and African American creatives the world over. Odes to the barbershop as a Black owned, managed and frequented locale are seen in comedies like Channel 4’s Desmond’s (1989-1994), the Ice Cube-starring Barbershop franchise (2002-2015), Andy Mundy-Castle’s documentary The Fade (2002) through to Inua Ellams’ hit National Theatre production, The Barbershop Chronicles (2017). Initiatives between Black men to use the barbershop specifically as a hub for mental health support and education are also on the rise, as evinced in the boroughs of Islington and Hackney. Bringing Black men from around the African and Afro-Caribbean diaspora together, the barbershop is a home to those of migrant and Black diasporic heritage. It is a hive of diverse languages and cultures. And it is an arena for storytelling, just as much as it has inspired stories on the stage, screen and page.

The story of the barbershop has also made its way onto canvas. Hurvin Anderson: Salon Paintings, the artist’s latest solo exhibition at the Hepworth Wakefield Gallery, celebrates the shop front, back and sides. Returning to this site in his drawings and paintings across a two-decade span, Anderson centres the barbershop as a locus of Black creativity and community, as well as his own artistic expression and exploration. But what is astonishing about Anderson’s body of work – one which he states represents no single barbershop but a ‘generic’ one, a site and situation of the imagination – is its scarcity of people. For a space so thick with music, metal and chatter – from the patois of Jamaica, the Twi and Ga of Ghana through to the slang of North-East London – Anderson’s painted salons are remarkably scarce of what makes the barbers, well, a shop: its people. Far from being empty set pieces, however, his paintings are beautifully and poetically imbued with the sense, style and sensibility of a salon. Ever faithful to its spirit, the works are saturated with the barbershop’s cultural history and social activity; that is, layer upon layer honours as well as announces a space implicitly formative and affirmative of Black British male identity.

That’s not to say that Anderson’s barbershops haven’t sprung from the real thing. Rather, his salons blur studies and encounters of actual salons with his own impressionistic realisation of them. To enter the first gallery, is, therefore, to step into the shop of Anderson’s mind, to move in an almost dream-like space where the real and fictive hazily coalesce. Barbershop (2006), one of his earliest paintings in the series, could be seen as the first study for this sublime coalescence, the painterly germ of grander, bolder experimentations in fusing abstraction and figuration that would come later in the series. Approaching from behind the revered chairs, Anderson places us inside the shop, within this near-chapel-like space of transformation and intimate conversation. Though we are alone, the sole occupants of this part-imaginary, part-realist domain, the interior of Anderson’s salon everywhere infers and bears witness to the society it is used to entertaining. Embodiment is captured and retained in the residue of the hair-dressing and cutting experience: in the tangle of black clipper wires, the fresh shavings and tufts of hair on the cream floor, the altar-piece of bottles – mere panels and smears of muted reds, blacks and greys but efficaciously suggestive of the barbershop paraphernalia and its devotional rituals. Still, Anderson entreats us to go further into this hallowed space, encourages the eye and body to understand its multidimensional capacity and facility. ‘I was drawn to painting this particular barbershop simply because of the mirrors,’ Anderson shares in the captions. And mirrors, with all their reflective possibility and illusionary play, are what we get, so that where one reflected wall begins and ends becomes sophisticatedly and gorgeously blurred in an overlay of coloured blocks and strips. Although we cannot fully fathom the actual coordinates and spatial limitations of this (sui)generic barbershop, we do learn that it surpasses our former preconceptions: that in this still rendering of his subject, in his subtle, distilled paintwork, in his ingenious composition, Anderson pays homage to a simple yet emotionally evocative site; to a space that is humble yet proudly continues to reverberate in the memory of this artist – and now ours.

Barbershop, 2006.

The employment of and response to mirrors in these paintings are not just a nod to what is obviously there, in the shop, before client and barber. They also hint at Anderson’s own artistic background and training (art historical inspirations like impressionism), to his own understanding of perspective and the potentiality of paint (infinite when in the hands of this artist). They look to the self-fashioning processes of these spaces, here fashioned once again (and again) by Anderson, thus creating a fashion-like trend within his own oeuvre, a self-portrait of sorts upon the embodied and embodying thresholds of Black hair salons. But they also complicate the barbershop space and our involvement in it. We at once see ourselves in spaces that some of us ordinarily would have no business. We are at once implicated in this reconstructed site, but disorientated by its deconstructed, mirror-inflected planes. Quietly turning the barbershop inside out, Anderson highlights the loaded social politics of such a site, converting an exclusively or majorly Black space into one that momentarily encompasses many identities and positionalities.

‘Kaleidoscopic’ as this mirror play is – and we see this captured in the mesmerising extended intersection of neon-coloured rectangular planes in Studio Drawing 15 (2016) and the poetic still life of Miss Jamaica (2021) – it also magnifies cultural mores and tensions. Is It Ok To Be Black? (2015) offers a close-up of one of these walls, the surface above a counter-top crowded with bottles of shampoo, conditioner, creams, styling gels and other cosmetics and apparatus. Hovering above are adverts and photographs of models sporting the latest cut and style created on request, but rather than go into detail, Anderson has rendered them as silhouettes, apparitional white outlines on a black background and a turquoise wall – barring three. Two are distinct and painted in a naturalistic fashion: Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The third is a ghostly form of Marcus Garvey, attired in his iconic plumed hat and uniform as seen during his famous parade through Harlem in the 1920s. Holding these three very different and somewhat controversial figures in our eye-line, Anderson demonstrates that the barbershop is able to present and embrace ostensibly oppositional personas and their opinions all at once. The salon is, therefore, an elastic space that incorporates into its own literal and cultural fabric diverging views, political differences and opposing ideologies. Here, in the barbershop, Black history is not only preserved, commemorated and venerated, but is literally in the making. Peering into the mirror of the salon (or the work) could a future Garvey, King or X be staring back at us?

Is it Ok to be Black?, 2015.

If Is It Ok To Be Black? – a pun, as Anderson himself identifies, on the question, ‘is it ok at the back?’, often heard in the salon – challenges monolithic conceptions of Black culture and its political consciousness and canon, then it also confirms the salon as a place to be unapologetically just that: diverse in one’s Blackness, free in one’s expression and construction of what this is and means to individual Black men, away from the white washed world and its violent surveillance beyond the barbershop’s door. Azumah Nelson’s words echo here as we view this commemoration to Black creativity and artistry – with hair, with paint – and its legacy of finding spaces to envision, articulate and conceive of both: ‘You know you can be free here…this is ritual, shrine, ecstatic recital.’ Standing before this alternative yet no less hallowed altar, we recognise in Is It Ok To Be Black? not only the equivalent iconography and sanctified sanctuary of the religious devout, but a space akin to the studio of artists like Anderson himself. Far from aggrandising the barbershop, Anderson cements its original status as a creative site and in doing so follows in the tradition of the likes of Velázquez, Vermeer and Van Gogh, who turned unusual or domestic spaces into both the subject and inspiration behind their own creativity. The salon is the art studio and the art studio is a subject worth its own time (and money) in paint.

Yet it is Anderson’s most recent works that really carry this message home, mirroring the power of the salon with that of the studio space. These are the paintings demonstrating the barbershop as simultaneous inspiration behind and consummation with the space art provides: refuge, escape, departure, but also indentification, communication, stimulation. In Skiffle and Shear Cut (both 2023), Anderson reconstitutes the salon on a larger scale and in a bolder, more tropic palate, and this time with figures. Mellow tones of hot pink, zesty yellow, baby blues through to deeper shades of indigo and maroon, build up this expansive zone, accentuating the ease, relaxation and energy the figures exude on the canvas. But the quiet magic of the space has not been broken by their presence; instead, its mystery prevails through the ever perpetuating play of perspective, and the marvellous indistinction of where these bodies actually exist in the frame. Taking his cue from Édouard Manet with these two works and referencing an entirely different though no less famous tradition of salons – the French Salonnieres, the cabarets of fin de siècle Paris, the art salons of the burgeoning gallery scene of the European art world, and the social and intellectual culture associated with all three – Anderson plays with our perceptions by obfuscating exactly who is positioned where, what is reflection and actual ‘reality’, and who we are in relation to this scene. Partly inspired by Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882), both works at once draw us in with their planes of activity and spatiality, only to push us away with their complicated and illusionary depths. Are these figures actually there? Are they mirages, imagined scenarios, images of what could be, what has been, what will be, in these ‘generic’, oneiric barbershop states and sites? Or does their reflected presence reflect our own bodily absence now that these shops have been repopulated again? And isn’t this central to the game and goal of art?

Shear Cut, 2023.

What they do show is that there is a salon Anderson has in mind, a figured space in paint, but equally great, if not greater, in memory, born of diasporic ties and tendencies and traditions. Looking closer at the paint, its dissolving drip effect against the sensitively and perfectly condensed screens of colour, forms and shade, we see the salon reassembling – even in its magical act of dissembling – before our very eyes. Inviting us in, a barbershop for all ages, Anderson generously shares a space all of his own. Peering into the mirror, viewing the empty chairs, we enter the salons of his mind, the spaces of his own artistic story, a pictorial legacy that is undoubtedly a cut above the rest.


Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou is a writer, the founding editor-in-chief and general arts editor of Lucy Writers, and is currently writing up her PhD in English Literature (and Visual Material Culture) at UCL. She regularly writes on visual art, dance and literature for magazines such as The London MagazineThe White ReviewThe Arts DeskPlinth UKBurlington Contemporaryreview 31Club des FemmesThe Asymptote JournalThe Double Negative and many others. From 2022-2023, Hannah will be managing an Arts Council England-funded project for emerging women and non-binary writers from migrant backgrounds, titled What the Water Gave Us, in collaboration with The Ruppin Agency and Writers’ Studio, which has already resulted in an anthology of the same name. She is also working on a hybrid work of creative non-fiction about women artists and drawing, an extract from which is published in Prototype’s 2023 anthology, Prototype 5. Find her on Twitter @hhgsparkles and Instagram @hannahhg25.

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