‘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.