Written by Imani Wj Wright
“The Barbershop Series” exhibition features the work of renowned Baltimore artist, puppeteer and museum educator Schroeder Cherry, Ed.D. The series pays homage to one of the most enduring African American economic and cultural institutions, using bold colors, movement, symbols and visual metaphors. Each piece is a multimedia collage emulating the voices, sounds, textures and personas that make barbershops a central place in communities around the nation.
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to analyze and spectate “The Barbershop Series,” a collaboration between visual artist, Schroeder Cherry and Joshua Lee, a mental health therapist. The series opened with a curated event by L. Nef’fahtiti Partlow-Myrick. Cherry began these conversations in 2015 and continues the narrative of open communication in inner city communities. Conversations that account for real Black voices in the communities that people listen to least.
Growing-up, my father and I would get our hair cut every other Friday at Session’s Barbershop. There were days where my father and I would wait until 1 a.m. to finally get our cut and end up leaving at about 2 a.m. Even though I was young, I was never impatient. Time seemed to fly by so fast. There was always such good conversation throughout the shop. Not just [small talk], but intense, passionate and socially dogged discussions. At Session’s, the topics would vary, and often did. Anything you could name- from history, to sports, to the three branches of government, there was a little bit of everything. I quickly realized that barbershops were a massive nucleus for dialogue.
Videographer, Lukey Lenz and I were allowed access to the art gallery. We spent two-hours trying to take everything in and figure out exactly what the messages were in these pieces of art. One motif that we came across were locks. There were physical locks attached to the pieces. And along with these locks, fittingly so, there were sets of keys.
After some “ice breaking”, it was time for Lee to get everyone started with the crux of the “event.” He said to everyone, “If you were a lock, show me what that would look like. Show me a soft lock, Show me a hard lock.”
We even got a little unconventional with pretty locks. At first, people hesitated, but swiftly found a way to show their bodily interpretations of what each lock looked and felt like to them. Afterwards, participants were sectioned off into groups to discuss the topic in which was assigned to them. Two of the presented topics were lock and unlock.
Michelle Holder, a woman who was discussing “unlock,” made a very memorable statement. Holder said, “When I heard lock, I closed my eyes. I didn’t want anything to do with my surroundings.”
Another man, proudly sporting a dashiki, said, “I thought of the chains on my people from wrist to ankle.”
A few steps over to the left there was a group of folk speaking on lock. The atmosphere was the same in this circle.. serious, and introspective. A young woman named Nicole explained: “I don’t know what the end goal is of the key. I don’t know. I don’t know the key to anger.” Words and phrases like, “uncomfortable,” “exposed,” and “I cut myself from the world,” were all consistently heard throughout the room. At points, some even began to break out in tears. This was deeper than an exercise, this was deeper than great art, this was people finding pieces of their spirit that they may have never unlocked.
Cherry’s art simply became what art is typically used for, and becomes in the real world…. inspiration. The participants weren’t just looking at the assemblage art on the wall and analyzing the pieces for what they were. The art had now been given legs. It lead to a community event, a thinking tank, a moment of self reflection.
Schroeder Cherry, Joshua Lee, and everyone else involved with the curation of the Barbershop Series deserves a grand applause. I, along with many others in that room, experienced what art and humanity can truly accomplish in tandem. I hope future artists can use this model to expand their piece…surpassing the canvas.
In the meantime.. Stay Virtuous. Stay Idealistic. Stay Progressive.