When Natasha Ria El-Scari looked around art galleries in the Kansas City area, she didn't see enough work by black artists. So, El-Scari, an award-winning poet and performer in town, started reaching out to promising young artists to show their work in places owned by black people.
Now, El-Scari coordinates rotating exhibits by six artists who show their work in eight area barbershops and beauty salons. She calls the project Black Space Black Art.
“It took some convincing, said El-Scari with a laugh. "You know to get people to say ‘Can we knock holes in your wall and change art around every three months?'”
But the idea has clearly caught on. Johlon Whittaker, who owns Big J’s Barbershop in Raytown, said he enjoys the way each new artist changes the vibe of his space.
“Every artist that we’ve had in here, I absolutely love it," said Whittaker, who has been cutting hair for 15 years. "Everybody brings their own unique flair to their art. Each time each one comes in it’s exciting. It brings out the shop. It’s a conversation piece. A lot of people ask about it.”
Jacob Lovingood, who was at Big J's for his regular appointment with Chester McIntyre, said he enjoyed seeing the paintings every time he came in.
“You can tell somebody put their heart and their soul into that," Lovingood said. “It’s not like something they bought at Walmart. This is a real artist right here.”
On that particular afternoon, Lovingood was admiring Warren Harvey’s richly colored paintings of young black men.
Harvey said Black Space Black Art has opened new doors for him.
“Art is everything to me," said Harvey. "It’s really brightened up my future and it has given me permission to dream and so I am grateful for it and I know that I will do it for the rest of my life.”
Just a few blocks away at First Cuts Barbershop and Salon, Monique Hall had been enjoying paintings of lions and tigers hung on the lime green walls behind her.
“It’s just a breath of fresh air at times," said Hall. "It truly is. Just someone expressing what they feel through painting. You know, of course I do it through hair but they do it through painting.”
But the goal isn’t just for artists to show their work. El-Scari wants them to sell their work. Most salon clients don’t expect to leave the barber’s chair with a piece of art, so El-Scari offered payment plans to make the purchase easy.
“I like when people say, ‘I never thought I could afford art.’ And they even will come visit the piece as they are paying for it. They are like ‘That’s coming home with me,’” El-Scari said. “I just cannot even begin to describe how that feels.”
El-Scari says it's important for black people to have “very exclusive and protective black spaces.”
But most barbershops aren't open on First Fridays, so El-Scari had to get creative when it comes to art openings. For that, she turns to Facebook Live.
If people like what they see, all the work is for sale online.
You can experience a Black Space Black Art opening by following along on Facebook.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.