In a bright blue shipping container on the corner of T and 14th streets NW, you’ll find a fully functioning barbershop where Alice might spruce up for the Mad Hatter’s tea party. The haircuts provided at The Barbershop Project, the latest exhibition from CulturalDC, are perfectly ordinary. Nothing else is. Silk flowers sprout from delicately carved tree trunk tables, and from the mirrors and the barbers’ chairs. And on the back wall, you will find two remarkable paintings. One depicts a black man, the other a black boy. Both are getting haircuts, crying.
These two portraits were created by up-and-coming Pittsburgh artist Devan Shimoyama, who also helped design the space. The paintings are a sparkling collage: hair of glitter, gemstone tears, sequins across the chests. But the faces are distinctly muted, their features faded out and expressionless. For all the fabulous color, the men seem quiet and distant. There’s scissors or an electric trimmer running through their hair, but there is no barber’s hand guiding the objects. They are alone.
Shimoyama, who has displayed his barbershop portraits at galleries and solo museum shows up and down the East Coast, often talks about the estrangement he’s experienced during his unavoidable trips to the barber. A black queer man, he describes the barbershop as a locus of hypermasculinity. It’s an important community gathering spot, to be sure, but one where fathers may scold their sons for crying and where homophobia is sometimes unapologetic. That sense of alienation is certainly present in The Barbershop Project. But don’t let the crying fool you—it’s not the main emotion at play. At their core, Shimoyama’s paintings are celebrations. The faces may be muted, but the rest is stuffed with lavish color. In “Bobby,” the adult male portrait, blobs of glittering paint jump off the man’s beard, and runway-ready feathers fill a third of the canvas. “All of it’s a constructed fantasy made out of synthetic materials,” from the fake flowers to the fake jewels, Shimoyama says. He explains that by emphasizing the colorful and the synthetic, he’s drawing from “black church ladies” and from drag culture, where people “construct an entire fantasy of another individual.”
Through that, he’s also constructing another way of seeing the people he paints, or, perhaps, constructing another way for them to be. In a 2017 interview, Shimoyama laid out his vision for these portraits. The barbershop paintings, he said, came out of a “fantasy,” where the everyday shop becomes a place “in which black males can truly convene and decompress and cry and express themselves as they truly are.” Which raises a question: Are the men crying because they don’t feel at home, or are they crying because they do and don’t need to hold back?
Shimoyama keeps that ambiguous. His subjects’ impenetrable eyes don’t give us any clues. But what is clear, the first thing you notice standing in front of his portraits, is that they are unabashedly crying sparkling rhinestone tears which shine in the light. And however you interpret them, they’re beautiful. Shimoyama has expended a great deal of his prodigious talent finding new materials with which to build his crying men, showcasing another way of seeing their sadness. In this way, the tears are not necessarily an indication of a problem to be solved or a sign of weakness. They’re just a part of the men he paints.
“Having grown up and not really seen black men allowed to be vulnerable,” Shimoyama says, this work is about “allowing someone to emote something outside of that hardened exterior and facade of toughness.” If his subjects’ tears are hard to read, then don’t read too much into them.
Of course, this is all ignoring the most unusual aspect of The Barbershop Project—it is a working barbershop, where an acclaimed painter has chosen to display his paintings in the background while people get haircuts. Why move outside the gallery-museum circuit? The most obvious explanation, and probably the best one, is that Shimoyama wanted to bring his work to a wider audience. Kristi Maiselman, the executive director of CulturalDC, estimates that since CulturalDC moved its exhibitions into a mobile shipping container in fall 2017, it’s had more visitors than in the 14 years it occupied a traditional brick-and-mortar gallery. Tens of thousands of people came to see it, and hundreds, young and old, got free haircuts. Shimoyama works extensively on depictions of young black boys, and he says he wanted to make a space that was more accessible location-wise and sparked enough curiosity to invite people, particularly children, in.
“I wanted to make it this fantastical, immersive environment where you walk into the paintings and see this world,” he says.
In doing so, Shimoyama has also created a space where his language of jewelry, tears, and glitter comes off in a different light. Walking into The Barbershop Project, you take all of it in at once—the bright orange furniture, the flowers on the wall, the glitzy gems running down the men’s cheeks. It’s impossible not to smile. And removed from the sterile, white walls of a museum, the contrast between his subjects’ glamorous accoutrements and their somber faces isn’t so jarring. They fit right in. Their tears are just one crucial part of the décor.
At the corner of T and 14th Streets NW to Oct. 6. Free. (202) 315-1321. culturaldc.org/the-barbershop-project.