With his impressive dreadlocks, Hurvin Anderson is an unlikely regular habitué of a barbershop. Yet visiting one, in 2006, inspired the Turner Prize-nominated artist to begin a series of paintings that shed light on an aspect of Caribbean culture while breaking new ground in British art.
The paintings, in an exhibition just opened at Hastings Contemporary, offer a glimpse of Caribbean emigré life in the backstreets of Handsworth, Birmingham, where Anderson grew up. Wandering in one day, while observing the work of the barbers, his eyes were drawn to the mirrors: “It’s an odd atmosphere to work in. To have so much reflection. To see yourself constantly.”
He went on to produce, from photographs, a series of brightly coloured, semi-abstract depictions: from the chairs and paraphernalia to the odd shapes that stand in for mirrors and posters. The abstraction brings to mind artists such as Piet Mondrian, and the realistic interiors evoke something of the American realist painter Edward Hopper.
The result is visually absorbing and playful. Simple captions sometimes add a humorous dimension. I particularly liked Miss Jamaica, which shows a woman’s face in the middle of the picture and can be taken two ways. Among other works are Is it OK to be Black?, with its depictions of US Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The title refers to a mis-hearing of the classic barber’s question, “Is it ok at the back?”
Anderson has since gone on to people his salons: two new large paintings, begun only last year, also feature in the exhibition. And it seems likely that ‘barbershop’ is a theme he will continue to return to. As well as connecting to his roots in Caribbean culture – his parents are both from Jamaica – the series has, he says, become “a meditative exploration of painting itself.”
The 57-year-old artist has achieved recognition on both sides of the Atlantic. His works feature in collections at the Tate in London as well as in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and in 2017 he was among four artists shortlisted for the prestigious Turner Prize.
Paintings on sanyan from a rising star
Running alongside Anderson’s work, and not to be missed, is the first major UK public show by a rising star of the art world, Nengi Omuku. It is something of a first for gallery visitors too. Instead of the usual canvas, her paintings are on sanyan, a traditional Nigerian material – tightly-woven and hand-spun – a cross, I was told, between silk and cotton. Omuku’s inspiration is the natural world of her country and her application of oil on fabric is luminous and dazzling.
The curator writes: “Welcome Home and Lighthouse both feature her signature spectral figures set in a dreamlike landscape. Still Life alludes to the time Omuku spent working as a florist and horticulturalist under her mother, while the foregrounds of Repose and Swing suggest the influence of Monet’s garden at Giverny on her work and the artist’s own research into Impressionism.”
Her largest work to date Eden (2022) – just over five metres (17ft) wide – takes up one wall and includes scatter cushions and pot plants, echoing the artist’s own studio in Lagos.
Omuku says she feels a kinship between Hastings and her coastal home in Lagos, while the show fulfils a dream she has had since studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. The focus of her work, she says, is “bringing love and light into the world” and the need to nurture and protect nature.
Spread across five of the eight galleries at the Contemporary, the paintings provide the warmth and sunshine we all yearn for in this increasingly grey and chilly autumn.
Both Hurvin Anderson’s Salon Paintings and Nengi Omuku’s The Dance of the People and the Natural World run until 3 March 2024 at Hastings Contemporary.