A report by Kate Branch for Vogue.
The opening reception of “Pòtoprens: The Urban Artists of Port-au-Prince,” a large-scale exhibition of work by more than 25 artists working in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, occupies three stories of Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn. On the ground floor, past the wall of sequin-covered masks and the elaborately beaded, feminist-minded flags that depict men on horses and women with their skirts pulled up, there are sculptures. Some are heads carved from limestone found in the Rivière Froide while others are built with discarded tires, donated heels, baby doll heads, human skulls. In the garden just beyond the mystical structures that mingle with showgoers sits a small barbershop.
The simply constructed shack is representative of the country’s capital, which is one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere and home to 2.5 million Haitians, where unisex hair parlors are everywhere. “Barbershops are the ultimate democratic business because you don’t need a college education to open one,” says Richard Fleming, a burly author who has spent the last five years documenting the city’s many unique storefronts on his Instagram handle, the Amazing Barbershop. “All you need is a razor blade, a pair of scissors, a comb, and a chair. And someone who is going to have faith that you’ll make them look or feel better about themselves.”
More than that, Fleming continues, they serve as bustling social centers in Port-au-Prince—places for people to come watch football, drink a beer or a coke, listen to music, or charge their phones (“they call that multi-service,” he says in a French accent). “The social aspect is strong around hair,” he says of the in-demand businesses, some of which are constructed inside house-like structures made from repurposed shipping containers, or in the back of box trucks, while others are built from recycled plywood or other sturdy materials. “In the same way that a lot of the sculptures in this show are made out of old fossilizing fans or pieces of car parts,” he says, “there is a way in which Haiti and the Caribbean are like a dumping ground for American off-cast stuff. And that makes its way into the barbershop.”
All barbershops, no matter how they are assembled, are illuminating sights to be seen and devoured, with their colorful hand-printed signage and floor-to-ceiling painted portraits of hairstyles and celebrities, such as Rihanna, whose face is depicted across the white walls of this exhibition’s installation. Entitled “Salon de Beauté Marie Rogère,” the barber’s shack is named after the deceased mother of Michel Lafleur, the artist behind its life-like renderings.
In addition to his portrait of the Barbados-born singer, her raven lengths shown framing her gaze, which has been softened by shadings of pink at eye, cheek, and lip level, there are paintings of Haitian stars Joseph Zenny, and his high top fade haircut, and Rutshelle Guillaume, her teased-out Afro, long thin eyebrows, and oversize gold hoops recalling another time entirely.
There is even the perfectly groomed Lafleur himself—the self-portrait as a zero-cost marketing tool, says Fleming, that many local artists do when decorating shops in their hometown. Their phone numbers can be found beneath their signature beneath their face. “In fact, I would say this beautiful Haitian tradition of hand-painted signage persists because of the economic status of the country. There are piles of trash because no one is taking away their garbage, but there is also this richness, and artistic expression, every where you look, in a way that we have totally lost here because of franchising and everybody immaculately curating their brand and image.”
Inside the exhibition’s single-chair box shop, a female visitor grabs a cold Prestige from the cooler and a man gets a shape up from a Haitian barber named Patrick, who owns his own salon on Nostrand Avenue and Cortelyou Road in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. Ruby, Fleming’s daughter, plays on the fake tile floor with two other friends while onlookers peer in through the window, curious as to how to get their names on the growing list for haircuts. Outside, an impromptu drum circle starts as night begins to fall.
The scene is a lot like in Port-au-Prince, says Fleming, with friends and family abound. The only aspect missing is Lafleur, who, like many of the artists highlighted in the exhibition, was denied a visa to come into the country to see his work on display. As frustrating as it is, Fleming, who helps commission paintings by the likes of Lafleur and other Haitian artists, will pass along the good vibes on his next visit to Haiti. “Every time I go, one of the [storefronts] I loved will have faded or its paintings will have peeled. But right next door, someone will have created a brand-new [portrait] that I never saw before,” he says. “And it’s just as rich.”