The Barbershop Project is a social practice artwork installation built upon the collaboration between artist [Devan Shimoyama], Barber of Hell’s Bottom owner Kelly Gorsuch and furniture maker Caleb Woodard. Together, they have transformed CulturalDC’s Mobile Art Gallery in Washington into an immersive installation and fully functioning, inclusive barbershop offering free haircuts to the community. This project is inspired by the art of hair, performance of styling and the cultural institution that is the barbershop, while also providing the community with a free service in an LGBT-inclusive environment. This interdisciplinary project is an example of socially engaged art, which aims to create social change through cooperation with individuals, communities, and institutions in the creation of participatory art.
The Barbershop Project is staffed by employees who embody and can explain what it means to be LGBTQ. Shimoyama has described the estrangement he experienced during his trips to the barber. As a black queer man, he describes the barbershop as a locus of community and hypermasculinity.
Devan Shimoyama’s ornate paintings explore the relationship between celebration and silence in queer culture and sexuality by deconstructing notions of hypermasculinity in barbershops. His acclaimed work has been featured in prestigious galleries and museums throughout the United States. Shimoyama 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.” The space inside The Barbershop Project feels like an extension of Shimoyama’s paintings, as if by stepping into the gallery, one steps into his work itself. The furniture is bright orange, there are flowers on the walls and his paintings are glittering collages featuring gemstones, sequins, rhinestones and glitter.
The Barbershop Project brings Shimoyama’s paintings to life by removing them from gallery walls and instead placing them in an accessible public space that engages the community. By displaying them in a fully functioning barber shop, he wanted to bring his work to a broader and more diverse audience. Shimoyama’s work often depicts young black men, 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. He built a fantastical world that is also a safe place to receive a free in-demand service. Tens of thousands of people came to see The Barbershop Project, and hundreds of people, young and old, received free haircuts.
Since CultureID moved its exhibitions into a mobile shipping container in 2017, the organization estimates that it’s had more visitors than in the 14 years it occupied a traditional brick-and-mortar gallery combined.