Refocusing the narrative: "Black Men in Focus" at Gallery CA explores and celebrates black male identity

City Paper
"Black Men in Focus" is like a multivoiced manifesto for black men to reclaim their identities

Three black men sit on stools in a photo studio and the photographer asks them: "How do you perceive yourself?" and then "How do you think the world perceives you?" In the resulting diptychs, the men each hold signs: One says "significant," and then, "threat"; the middle says "dif²erent" in both; the one on the right says "deity" and then "insignificant." There are subtle differences between each man's pose, with shifts in posture or slight changes in facial expressions, and because the large black-and-white prints are direct and striking, they serve as an easily digestible primer for the rest of the work in Gracie Xavier's "Cutz: Black Men in Focus," at Gallery CA through Oct. 30.

In the middle of the gallery, a gold-painted barber's chair faces a mirror in a small nook. A white shelf below the mirror holds two hair clippers, combs, a straight razor, sticks of incense, a coarse-bristle brush, and a can of hair spray. A small television screen mounted to the chair's headrest plays a six-minute looping video in which several black men, one at a time, talk about preconceived notions, how they feel about being black, and why the barbershop is a beautiful place. As you stand there looking at the screen or looking over the chair at the screen's reflection in the mirror, listening to the stories brings up issues of identity and racism and self-love, and how all of those things interact. That the barber's chair is painted gold, too, turns it into a noble or royal symbol.

Black barbershops have historically been the sites of community-building and activism. Quincy Mills, author of "Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America," says in an interview with Collectors Weekly that even revolutionary activist Stokely Carmichael first "gained a glimmer of awareness of the larger black freedom struggle" when he went to his Harlem barbershop. "Black newspapers were available in barbershops and many barbers were quite politically active," Mills says, "so they would provide their own literature and reading materials, whether about the Communist Party or registering to vote."

This idea of the barbershop as a meeting place, or a place of mentorship, is also evident in Xavier's candid black-and-white photos taken from inside Southwest Baltimore's New Beginnings Barbershop. The photos are framed and hung on the wall next to the barber's chair installation. In one, a teenager in an Orioles T-shirt fastidiously buzzes around the head of a middle-aged man who stares straight ahead. The people are slightly out of focus, but the background is sharp; the back wall of the barbershop has a sign that says "Wall of Wisdom" with an all-seeing eye symbol above it, and below there are empty shelves except for one book by street fiction writer Donald Goines and another about Kwanzaa. A few pictures show the men embracing and smiling; a small one shows two young men sitting near a window playing chess. One large print shows another angle of the boy in the Orioles T-shirt and the middle-aged man in the chair, this time with another man who seems to be offering some tips on technique. These photos are at once ordinary and sweet and straightforward; several of the photos exude joy while others capture a more reserved seriousness or concentration by the barbers and their clients.

To contrast a bit with the affirmation and positivity, on the other side of the wall of photos, there is a tidy presentation of newspaper and magazine clippings, reproductions of posters and old political ads from the 1860s, and a few small black-and-white photos that Xavier took of black men at protests during the uprising, all hung against a bright red-painted wall. A broken mirror hangs in the middle of the wall, and each piece of ephemera around it is carefully pinned to the wall, or safeguarded in clear plastic sleeves, and most of the pieces that require a little more reading are clustered toward the center and around the mirror. It is worth your time to pore over each, if only to remind yourself of just a few of the ways that whites have historically oppressed (and continue to oppress) black people—from a photocopied racist caricature flier against the Freedmen's Bureau, to a memorandum about the Tuskegee experiment, to charts on the effects of the drug war on black men. And then, of course, there are the empowering protest signs and abolitionist fliers, the iconic "I AM A MAN" sign, and a more recent flier about a protest from the Baltimore People's Power Assembly—all of which remind us that we are in the midst of a second civil rights movement.

"We're four years away from being in this country for 400 years, and black bodies, black souls, black spirits have been assaulted since." Quotes like this one from the video stick with you as you walk around the gallery, as you scan the fliers and headlines.

There are necessary and heavy truths in this show, which acts like a multivoiced manifesto, but the photos and video in "Black Men in Focus" cannot be reduced to correctives. The show aims to counter the way that the media portrays black people, especially black men and boys, and most important, the photographs and the video let these particular men and boys speak for themselves and celebrate their identities.

"I'm happy to be black, I love being black, period," one of the men in the video says. "That's the best thing in the world. I was telling someone at the market yesterday I love being black. It's nothing against any other race, but I love being black, I love people period, and I love black people."

"Cutz: Black Men in Focus" is on view at Gallery CA through Oct. 30. There will be a barbershop talk at New Beginnings on Oct. 24. For more info visit blackmeninfocus.com.

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