The Mobile Art Gallery by CulturalDC is in front of THEARC, the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus this summer. If you weren’t looking for it, you might miss it. It’s an oblong, blue and metal box sitting alone in the D.C. heat, just a few feet away from the street, as if it was dropped on the curb to be picked up. This box, however, is vastly bigger on the inside.
Cultural DC’s 20th anniversary is centering its season on The Barbershop Project, part of the Mighty Mighty art installation by Pittsburgh-based artist Devan Shimoyama, barber Kelly Gorsuch and furniture-maker Caleb Woodard. The project is both an arts installation and a functioning barbershop.
The feeling inside the gallery is immediately warm and stunning. It checks all the boxes of a barbershop: swivel chairs, mirrors and posters on the walls with numbered styles and cuts. But the chairs and mirrors are lined with bouquets of carnations and lilies. The posters are playfully bedazzled and glittery. Even the walls have holographic panels among the faux-wood ones. Lo-fi music plays from a single speaker, and a portrait made by Shimoyama for the installation, Bobby, hangs behind the barber.
The project is named after two songs, “Brick House” by The Commodores, and “Mighty Mighty” by Earth, Wind & Fire. Both songs use the phrase “mighty mighty” with different connotations: one to objectify women, as what Shimoyama finds to represent common “shop talk” between men in barbershops, and one to evoke strength and freedom, or “mightiness.”
“I had wanted the potential of the paintings…to actually engage individuals in a dialogue about how to evolve from said stereotypes of such performed hypermasculinity in barbershops and how to cultivate a safe and welcome environment for all of us,” said Shimoyama.
Mighty Mighty is an extension of a previous project by Shimoyama, his 2017 installation Sweet in New York City. Growing up queer left Shimoyama outside of the traditional and fraternal nature of black barbershops. Sweet sought to queer that space and reimagine it in his paintings as a place for people of all identities.
His paintings use a myriad of materials, all keeping in mind the wardrobe of drag queens, with sequins, broken costume jewelry, and most notably, in Bobby, ostrich feathers.
Shimoyama had since moved on from the project, until CulturalDC reached out to have his paintings come to life as a barbershop for their gallery. For Shimoyama, it was, “a full circle moment.”
“People can travel through to experience both art and this social practice,” said Shimoyama. “The project brings together art and community and learning, so I just couldn’t turn it down.”
Though downtown D.C. might find the installation surprisingly far, it was a significant choice for Shimoyama. THEARC is centered in a large black community in southeast D.C., exposing community members to an artistic and social experience they might normally need to leave their communities to reach.
The barbershop is only a gallery for the first half of the day. At 3 o’clock, Brixton Millner, a barber with Barber of Hell’s Bottom, owned by Gorsuch, comes in to give free haircuts for a group of boys sitting at the door. The boys are rowdy and the music is loud, but the distinct sound of the electric razor buzzing seems to drown everything out and become the center of the room.
“Every barbershop is pretty similar,” said Millner. “What I do like about this piece is that it promotes more of a dialogue about queer culture in a barbershop.”
“We all have that little look about each other, that acknowledgement about it,” said Millner about the few queer people he met in the gallery. “You don’t want to out anybody if they’re not out, but if they are, it’s a regular conversation like anywhere else.”
The gallery, otherwise, is not exclusive to the queer black community. “Generally speaking, many black barbershops are not the most welcoming environments,” said Shimoyama. “I expect [the gallery] to be inclusive of other identities. It’s important for all people to come together.”
What stood out more than anything was not the space that Shimoyama designed, or the haircuts that Millner provided, but the sense of safety and respect that it cultivated.
Into Millner’s second haircut of the day, the rowdy boys in the gallery started to hush up on their own, as one of them started to notice the disturbance they were causing in the small space. He prompted his friends to quiet down, and apologized to the barber for their behavior.
“We’ve got to start being respectful,” the boy said to his friends. “We’re inside somebody else’s space.”