lundi 19 décembre 2016

Trésors d'instagram 3: Amazing Barbershop

Richard Fleming
Richard Fleming, avec son instagram #amazingbarbershop, accomplit en Haïti un minutieux travail de documentation et de mise en valeur des enseignes et devantures de salon de coiffure. À Port-au-Prince, ce sont les commerces les plus nombreux, juste derrière la multitude de stand de loterie à numéro. Sa démarche est minutieuse car en plus de présenter cette vive production sur le net, il la fixe sur film argentique avec une résolution de compétition et entre en contact avec ses auteurs pour les interviewer et connaître leur point de vue sur leur art. La qualité et la vivacité de ces peintures se déploient tout au long de cet instagram au travers de portraits soignés (de chanteurs noirs américains, de footballeurs ou d’anonymes), de détails spécifiques au métier de coiffeur (tondeuses, wax, ciseaux, peignes, foehns) et de calligraphies assurées.
Richard Fleming par Michel Lafleur
Au contact direct de ces peintres et soucieux de leur précarité financière, Richard Fleming emmène son aventure encore plus loin en proposant aux internautes la possibilité de faire peindre leur propre enseigne, dans le style barbershop haïtien. En collaboration avec quelques peintres de Port-au-Prince, il fait l’interface avec l’internaute qui voudrait se faire tirer le portrait au travers de son site. Pour quelque 300-400 dollars, faites-vous un ego trip unique, par les meilleurs peintres de la ville, Michel Lafleur, Samandy, Jean Valmé ou Lucas.
Richard Fleming a eu la bonté de répondre aux questions de Tropicalizer dans cette interview passionnant. Merci à lui ! (voir aussi son site personnel ici)

Can you present yourself? What are your activities when you’re not taking picture of hand-made barber shop signs?
My name is Richard Fleming, and I’m an artist, writer, documentarian and photographer. I’m interested in all kinds of cultural phenomena, but particularly ones that have been largely ignored by the media, the art world and even academia. Things like signage, fringe manifestations of religion, sound systems, all kinds of vernacular expressions of popular culture, like street music, weird superstitions, how people decorate their cars, trucks and buses. Before I got married and my daughter was born I was on the road about six months out of the year, and I still travel whenever I can. I don’t necessarily have a fetish for remote and difficult places, but those do tend to be destinations where you come upon the unique and lesser known.

From where come your passion for this hand-made art?
In the early 1990s my closest friend was a foreign correspondent, and he traveled even more than I did. Long before I ever got to Africa he worked on some stories on the west coast of the continent, and he brought back some spectacular barbershop signs. There was also a museum show at the Fowler Museum at UCLA about 1995 about black hair and its meanings in Africa, and combined with that was an amazing collection of salon signs. So, that’s where it started. More generally, however, speaking as an American and one living in the United States, I would say that one of the most disturbing things that has happened to the landscape of my country in my lifetime is a constant progression towards a totally corporate visual culture. Many places look exactly the same; they have the exact same collection of franchise stores, whether you are driving down a highway in Maine or in Arizona. You see Office Depot, Victoria’s Secret, Bank of America, and of course countless fast-food chains. In my mind it all started with McDonald’s. Hundreds of miles of roadway share these identical mass-produced impact-resistant plastic molded signs that have absolutely no soul and no sense of humanity behind them. When I was growing up in the 1970s there was a much more eclectic landscape of hand-made signs, hand-painted signs, small businesses run by individuals instead of huge conglomerates. From a visual point of view the corporate obsession with “branding” is really a social cancer, and a place like Haiti, where practically every store fights for attention with completely one-of-a-kind handcrafted signage, is some kind of antidote to that, no matter how chaotic.

And what is so addictive in this type of popular art?
In terms of photographing signs, 90% of the images I’ve made have been in Haiti, and I’ve mostly concentrated on barbershops. If there’s an addiction, it’s the thrill of never knowing what you are going to find around the corner. Port-au-Prince has something like three million people, probably quite a bit more, and except for lottery-numbers dealers, which are on every block, barbershops and hair salons are the most numerous business. So the addiction, for me, is in the thrill of discovery, the possibility that exists at any moment of finding the work of a completely new and exciting artist as I move through the city, or a masterwork by someone I’m already aware of.

Do you think this kind of art will disappear with new impression technology?
Sadly, that’s very possible. One of the depressing aspects of the vibrant sign-painting culture in Haiti is that the economics still make it less expensive to hire a sign-painter than to create, say, a large, laser-printed banner. Occasionally you see vinyl banners, which I’m totally uninterested in, often with the original photographs of Ludacris or Rihanna that the sign painters draw from, but the economic situation is so dire, and unemployment and underemployment so huge, that really, really talented painters can’t charge anywhere near to what they should be getting paid. So, on the one hand I really hope the economy improves and wages go up, but on the other hand there’s a good chance that would make small businesses and barbershops who want to advertise themselves think seriously about using less soulful technologies. That said, I have talked to barbershop proprietors who really value the hand-painted signs, and prefer the look of them to a vinyl sign, so maybe Haitians are smarter than the people in the US who have allowed their surroundings to be visually polluted by all these gigantic generic franchise plastic signs. There is one Port-au-Prince painter, named Dautant, about whom I know very little, except that he died some years ago from diabetes. He’s somewhat of the grandfather of the salon and barbershop painting scene, and the very few places that still have signs painted by him really treasure them, and take care of them, and even hire other painters to do cautious and conservative touch-ups on them.

You're traveling a lot to find all those iconographic treasures, can you explain us how do you collect all those images?
I make most of my living recording sound for documentary films, and one of the most exciting things about that, as a career, is the amazing opportunities I’ve had to travel. I’ve filmed on every continent, and I always have a camera tucked into my sound bag. So some of the very first barbershops I snapped in Haiti, for instance, were taken right out of the car window. I have some where you can see the driver’s nose and side window framing the barbershop art. At first I looked at it as something I could do very casually, just grabbing pictures incidentally as I worked, or after a day of work in Port-au-Prince going out for a walk and making some snaps. But about a year and a half ago I had a meeting with the director of a museum here in New York to discuss possibly exhibiting the pictures and doing some kind of show about Haitian barbershops, and the director asked me what format I was shooting in, and how large I could blow the images up and so forth. That was really when I decided to get more serious about the barbershops, photographically speaking. Since then I’ve been shooting not only digital, but also on film, shooting on a Fuji camera that has a very sharp lens and makes a 6 x 9 cm color negative, which you can blow up almost wall-sized. That’s the technical side. On the practical side, I generally hire a car and just cruise the city, looking for barbershops, of which there are hundreds. Usually I try to carry with me a stack of images that I have already made, because Haiti has been so over-photographed, so abused, in a sense, by the international media, that people can be really aggressive about you taking pictures in the street. People will yell at you that you are “supposed to pay for that” even if they have absolutely nothing to do with the thing or place you are photographing. So I usually go into the barbershop and ask permission and chat to the barbers, and if they say no, I pull out my pictures of other signs, and tell them about the project, and try a little flattery. I speak kreyol, which is incredibly important for these “negotiations.” I would say at least 90% of the time people grant me permission, probably 95%. I never pay, but I do promise to try and come back and bring a print for them on my next trip. That’s not always possible, and I explain that it might not be realistic, but I do promise to try. And the places that I HAVE gone back to and successfully given the photographs to as gifts are totally blown away by the gesture, which is an awesome reward in itself.

Do you use this flamboyant popular creativity in your own work? Is it an influence?
In some ways the documentary process IS my own work. In the case of this barbershop project I don’t just take the pictures, I have also sought out some of the artists who most impress me, and interviewed them. And then a small group I am actively working with to expand their businesses, so that they can paint-on-demand for clients all over the world. The huge institutions of international aid have been incredibly inefficient, in some cases criminally so, in Haiti, and what Haitians need is jobs, export opportunities and international markets, not bags of American rice and piles of used clothes “donated” by churches. So we’re trying to work together simply to expand their possible market. The idea is that you, or any of your readers, can get a fabulous portrait painted, in the vernacular Haitian barbershop style, down to and including some spectacular hand lettering, and it will be done to order and delivered right to your door. You can check out my website at for some of my other projects.

You have contact with the artists, the painters, or some of them.  What can you tell us about their life? Their idea of the signs they paint?

Socio-economically, the artists whom I’ve met who do this work are typically from humble situations. To be less dainty about it, they are in financial terms very poor. But that describes 99.5% of Haiti’s population, so there really isn’t anything unique about living almost hand-to-mouth. None of the artists I’m working with on the portrait project have bank accounts, and one of the humbling things about our relationship is that they all consider me to be fabulously wealthy. I’ve also come to understand that there are entire industries set up to extract money from the very poorest people in the world. For instance there really doesn’t seem to be a better way for me to transfer funds to these artists than via Western Union, who charge as much as a 10 or 12% transaction fee. I mean, that would be a fantastic guaranteed annual return on almost any investment, and Western Union is taking that in an instant from every tiny little transfer of money to people who are often in desperate situations. Sorry, I’m going off on another rant. Getting back to the artists, they are all proud to be working as artists. Typically they describe themselves as self-taught, but a couple have been to art school, and almost everyone serious in the domain has done some kind of informal apprenticeship with an earlier generation of painter or artisan. An almost medieval system of apprenticeship is still quite strong in Haiti. You might go work for free for a few years, being the assistant to a welder, or some guy who is really good at decorating public buses with stripes, or does sign-painting. And then at some point you go off on your own and compete. I find in Haiti the distinction in the street between “fine” art and “commercial” art doesn’t really exist the way it does here. The artists I know consider themselves artists. They have canvases they want to sell and do sell, and they also respond when people call them to decorate barbershops or whatever. There is just one artist I know who paints barbershops under a pseudonym and didn’t want to be photographed because he doesn’t want his “serious” art to be confused with the commercial work. But generally this kind of thinking is quite rare. Most of these guys (and so far ALL of the painters I’ve met decorating barbershops are guys) are very proud of what they do, and of their reputations in the street. They post their newest work on facebook, that kind of thing.
Notons qu'il y a quand même un petit Ludacris qui sort de la bouche d'un plus grand Ludacris...
voir les post de Tropicalizer sur Haïti ici

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