Monday, 25 January 2016




In admiration. (Image Source: Hawa Noor)

This past weekend, I floated into a collaborative art show entitled Come Up To My Room. As part of the Toronto Design Offsite Festival and held at the uniquely preserved Gladstone Hotel on Queen West, the Gladstone Gallery opened its rooms to numerous artists of various disciplines to exhibit their works.

Style and Profile Barbershop and Identity Lab exhibit. (Image Source: Annissa Malvoisin)

I not only decided to focus on Nigerian-Canadian Chinedu Ukabam's Style & Profile: Barbershop and Identity Lab exhibit in support of my dear friend who helped work on it but because of its irrefutable connection to Black culture as well as its profound messages of self-identity in the face of contemporary societal self-representation. I was (and quite honestly still am) so overwhelmed by the complex connections between historical and cultural contextualizations to the modern day that I knew no other way to explain this installation to you than by breaking it down visually accompanied by my exact emotions.

Bafflement: Futuristic Nostalgia

The exhibit was inspired by the look of barbershops found in the African continent beginning in the 1930's. This aesthetic has continued contemporarily. The room was tiled with a Bakuba print from the Congo that distributed triangular forms equally in black and white. Portraits of the popular futuristic-looking late 19th- early 20th-century Amasunzu hairstyle, most commonly worn among Rwandans, mirrored each other on the wall. The entire vibe of the space brought me elsewhere. Ukabam recreated a barbershop that donned the African aesthetics of what one would look like from the 20th century to the present day, and then placed it in 2050. This caused me to find myself into the past, the present, and the future - as the artist took elements of each period and strategically positioned them into a single space. This was freedom to further examine contemporary issues with identity in all three periods of time.

"There’s something powerful about imagining a future where we are still there, and thriving, and having reverence for past culture. Whenever I create work that deals with the future, I always inject a lot of what could be considered ancient because that is my hope for the future. I envision a future that involves a lot of going backwards to reclaim the things that have worked in the past." (Chinedu Ukabam, Interview, 2016).

The Amasunzu hairstyle walks the line between an early 20th century norm and common contemporary perceptions of futuristic norms. (Image Source: Annissa Malvoisin)

Congolese Bakuba print line the walls of the space, creating the aesthetic of barbershops in the African continent. (Image Source: Annissa Malvoisin)

Amazement: The Barbershop as a Space for Self-Curation

This was possibly the most meaningful connection that I made with the exhibit. One of its clear messages was taking a space traditionally meant to change hairstyles and facial grooming to another level by giving customers the opportunity to change their entire identity. This is where the Identity Lab side of the barbershop comes in. A clever installation listed a number of ID Chips that customers could insert in order to construct a particular identity. The exhibit played with Futuristic Nostalgia and took the appearance-changing aspect of the barbershop literally. Through it, Ukabam played with the idea of curating identity to its extremities.

(Image Source: Annissa Malvoisin) 

(Image Source: Annissa Malvoisin)

(Image Source: Annissa Malvoisin)

(Image Source: Annissa Malvoisin)

(Image Source:Annissa Malvoisin)

(Image Source:Annissa Malvoisin)

(Image Source:Annissa Malvoisin)

Bewilderment (because this was too real): The Impostor

Hair was addressed as a method of self-curation through the artist's use of the Afro. Painted portraits of individuals who have worn the hairstyle were accompanied by titles that described how they were viewed by others and possibly how they viewed themselves.

How do you interpret hair as a method of curating identity?

Arisa Cox - Not Safe for Work? Her employer asked her to straighten her hair for work. 
(Image Source:Annissa Malvoisin)

Rachel Dolezal, a woman born White, adopted a Black identity through many ways, one of which was by changing her hair. 
(Image Source:Annissa Malvoisin)

Angela Davis was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
(Image Source: Annissa Malvoisin)
Assata Shakur was a member of the Black Liberation Party and the Black Panther Party. 
(Image Source:Annissa Malvoisin)

Understanding: Cultural Contextualization in relation to Contemporary Societal Norms

Lastly, the exhibit spoke to how the acceptance or rejection of appearances differ depending on who or what the individual is. It also depends on context. I saw this in two mixed-media portraits that utilized the decorative trend of putting flowers in one's hair. Wherein Ethiopia, certain tribes bear floral headdresses that look extremely similar to those who take it as a fashion trend in the countries of the West. Ukabam puts the visitor in the position to ask themselves if this is prmtv or avnt grd?

(Image Source:Annissa Malvoisin)
(Image Source:Annissa Malvoisin)

My favourite interactive were these amazing ID Shades that were representational of a future product of 2050. As part of the Identity Lab, you could try these on in order to gain the ability to view people as they would like to be seen rather than how they themselves portray themselves to be. Amazing, right?!

(Image Source: Hawa Noor) 

While standing in this small space, I wondered how so much was captured and communicated so simply but so powerfully - all through a few words and objects. Although the exhibit has been deinstalled, I hope that I brought enough of it to you to enjoy as much as I did.

The Festival ran from January 18th - 24th, 2016 (sorry!).
The exhibit installation was supported by Chinedu Ukabam's company SUPAFRIK.

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