Inua Ellams from the confessional on the art of hairdressing

Sheer Cut, 2023 © Hurvin Anderson. Courtesy of the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery

I don’t remember the first time I had a hairdresser. Neither does my father. When I ask, he says that since we were living in the northern part of Nigeria at the time, I was probably taken to one of the nomadic barbers who work in that region. They were men with fine combs and razor blades who could follow.

They sat under the largest tree in a village, and the men gathered in front of them for hours, patiently waiting their turn, gossiping loudly in Hausa, Fulani, Arabic, Yoruba, or one of the more than 500 languages ​​spoken in Nigeria. “It probably was,” my father says with a smile. Then I remember that my name Inua means ‘shadow under the tree’.

The earliest barber I remember was when I was four years old, round-faced, bronze-cheeked, chattering away as my father drove me to the barber shop in Jos. This time it happened indoors, under fluorescent lights, with posters. , hair creams, electricity and water. I giggled as the barber lifted me onto the cushion and then onto his chair so he wouldn’t have to bend too low. I remember looking at my face in the mirror and the sudden jolt of fear as the clippers came to life, the terror as he brought it to my head, the pain of the first contact, the burst of tears.

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We were a family of six: my father, mother and three sisters. This will be our ritual for my father and I. In a household dominated by women, it was the only place for our couple. We loved going to the barber shop, my father thrived in the company of men who told funny stories and wooed. I listened tensely, tensely, trying to decipher what was said. There was always music, food, refreshments and loud, rolling laughter.

“Afrosheen”, 2009 © Hurvin Anderson. Courtesy of the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery

“Flat Top”, 2008 © Hurvin Anderson. Courtesy of the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery

Due to complex reasons – social, religious and political – my family and I were forced out of our home in the 1990s. We became migrants, first from Jos to Lagos and finally emigrants from Lagos to London. I started school in West London in the summer of 1996, aged 12, and my father was working as a pizza delivery boy off the high-paying jobs and middle-class glory he enjoyed in Nigeria.

We cannot afford to cut hair in a barbershop, he informed; we should do them ourselves. I picked up the clippers and tried to hold their beating mechanical hearts in my 12-year-old hands, targeting each curl until my father’s head was clear. He did the same to me and it became our new ritual. Gradually, barbershops and the special space they hold started to withdraw from our world, until I completely forgot about them.

Some of these memories come back when I look at the Salon paintings About Jamaican-British artist Hurvin Anderson, who never forgot about barbershops. He painted one in his hometown of Birmingham in 2006 and returned to the scene in his art for over 15 years, repeatedly capturing the form, color, rhythm, architecture and structure of this one space. Sometimes we see almost everything: debris from cut hair on the floor, hair products on the table. Sometimes we only see abstract shapes and forms, as if looking in from the outside through a fogged-up window.

“Classic Pro”, 2017-2023 © Hurvin Anderson. Courtesy of the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery

On the walls of the salon are pictures of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, heroes of the civil rights movement whose ideas and legacies remain so important. And we also see the figures of customers, silhouetted or blurred, as if Anderson is protecting their identities, preserving the confessional relationship between barber and customer in this town. Containers and bottles containing creams and products are reminiscent of the city skyline in themselves.

Fourteen years after barbershops retreated from my world, a friend of mine suggested I return to them to research a project in London that trained black barbers. He pointed out that black men are 17 times more likely than white men to be diagnosed with a mental illness and four times more likely to be covered by the Mental Health Act. “They’re not asking for help,” he said. “But they felt safe in barbershops, so they let their madness down.”

Is it okay to be black?, 2015 © Hurvin Anderson. Courtesy of the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery

So in 2013 I started visiting a barbershop near my home in Nunhead, South London, and returned to the venue again and again, just like Anderson. I would sit among men and reacquaint myself with the music, the food, the soft drinks, the loud, rolling laughter. With permission, I also made audio recordings of these meetings and listened back to them obsessively, looking for form, color, rhythm, architecture, structure in their conversations. The stories would be about football, discipline, fatherhood, political legacy. The project eventually became a play Barber Chronicles, which debuted at the National Theater in 2017 and went on tour in the United States and Canada. It is now part of the graduation curriculum.

Anderson’s detailed works require the viewer to witness each barber shop again and again to re-enter this world. Why? What is the artist’s intention? It’s not that much of a mystery to me. Black barbers and the important work they do must be immortalized; Anderson does exactly that, but giving space to the viewer, he also asks who you would invite into the barber’s chair. How do you take care of their hair? And what stories might fall out?

‘Hurvin Anderson: Salon Paintings’ is on display at the Hepworth Wakefield from 26 May to 5 November.

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