Toronto-based agency Sunday School aims to keep Black artists in Toronto
One Friday night in early August, photographer Jeremy Rodney-Hall boarded a Greyhound bus with his camera and embarked on a 10-hour journey from Toronto to Brooklyn. Once there, he reunited with Nigerian-Canadian artist Josef Adamu and together they shuttled between local hair-braiding salons to capture their most eminent photo story to date.
The Hair Appointment, the editorial photo project they subsequently produced, was almost documentarian in the way its images peered delicately into a sacred region of Black life, one you can only truly know if you grew up in a Black home, with Black hair.
The project deviated from the colour-blocked suburbias that defined the pair’s earlier collaborations through Adamu’s creative agency, Sunday School, and introduces a cultural nostalgia that sparked a tidal wave of online attention.
“I’ve always felt there wasn’t really any space in Toronto for what we’re doing,” explains Adamu. “I want Sunday School to be a brand that stands for who we are as a people. I’m just trying to make something we don’t really have here.”
Easily the agency’s most successful project in terms of media coverage and social media traction, The Hair Appointment marks a powerful step toward that objective.
In 2017, Adamu had a sudden resolution: to create a space where Black artists could collaborate, help brands with marketing and connect with stylish, like-minded individuals. He assembled a carefully curated squad – writers, photographers, stylists and videographers – that included longtime friend Rodney-Hall.
Under his direction, the arts collective established a distinct aesthetic, and eventually meandered beyond editorial storytelling, setting up camp in Regent Park for a one-day free seminar on mental health and creative portfolio building. The response was effusive: people reached out via Instagram and email and other creatives sought him out to collaborate. The city’s neglected Black arts community appeared to be in dire need of Sunday School.
“In Canada, Black artists are an anomaly – at least in the cultural imagination,” art critic Yaniya Lee wrote in The Fader in 2016. The energy that has emboldened local hip-hop and R&B artists to remain here has yet to conclusively spread to other artistic realms. In the worlds of editorial and visual art, Black creatives continue to emigrate in search of greater opportunity and cultural investment. It is precisely this that Sunday School seeks to correct.
Courtesy of Sunday School
Something that comes up often in conversations about our arts community is the limited space here for artists who aren’t musical.
Josef Adamu: In Toronto, there are very few cliques that matter: the OVOs, the OCAD students. If you’re not one of them, and you’re pursuing your work, the response is like: “Oh, but you don’t matter. You’re not at that gallery every three weeks. You’re not on that panel for Creator Class.” If you’re not part of a certain group, the question becomes: “Who are you?” And then you do really good work, and it’s still like: “What school did you go to?” or “Who does he know?” or “Who co-signed him?”
Jeremy Rodney-Hall: One big thing we’ve always thought about, and why we’ve operated outside the gallery system, is how there are no gatekeepers online. You can just do whatever you want and it will be accepted from some kid in Africa, or some guy in New York. It’s usually the people in online spaces who don’t have access to those physical ones (galleries, museums) that end up leaving.
Adamu: We had our first exhibition in May, and I was looking to get a beer sponsorship. I tried everywhere – even the smallest breweries. None of them wanted to sponsor us. Even gallery spaces didn’t really want to talk about hosting us. I got no help at all until a Black-focused gallery hit us up. After three months of “no,” it was clear that it was because the show was very Black. It’s by Black founders and it’s Black people running it. And the second we had the show, I had DMs from people from New York City saying we had to bring the show there, and that we could have sponsorships in seconds. These were professionals and brands reaching out to us – companies I would never think to hit up.
Sunday School’s work has a narrative quality. The editorials are staged and the models are non-professional, but a cinematic quality is still present. You’ve mentioned Wes Anderson, his colours and tableaus. Is that something you’re thinking about when you tell stories?
Adamu: We treat our photos like film stills. I’m not going to say I make mood boards and prints according to stills, but when we’re shooting the photos, I’d rather catch a pose, mid-movie, than standing there and being more intentional about planning. That’s something you’ll see in The Hair Appointment with the mother braiding her daughter’s hair: it looks like Jeremy captured it as if from a movie. That was someone else’s house, someone else’s carpet. But we made it seem as though we captured something in real life.
Rodney-Hall: When I was in school, I was really inspired by documentary photography. People like Henri Cartier-Bresson, anyone at Magnum Photos, Alec Soth – photographers who document what real people are experiencing in a cinematic way.
Why a photo series about hair?
Adamu: That was about remembering. Growing up in a barber shop that was also a hair salon, you hear the gossip. You hear the kids running around and not wanting to sit down and get their hair braided. You hear the moms complaining about church. Being there every two weeks, or three weeks, or every month, and then coming home and seeing your mom slapping your sister in the head because she won’t sit down to get her hair combed out on a Sunday night. It’s just part of our culture. It’s not just about looking good on Monday morning. It’s really part of who we are.
Courtesy of Sunday School
The kids are really central to the narrative.
Adamu: Thankfully, the hairstylist had nieces that live in her building who were dying to take part. I thought kids would be really important for that feeling of nostalgia. And it was so authentic. I mean, that girl getting her hair done was literally crying. You can’t make that stuff up.
Rodney-Hall: That’s the next generation. And because of their ages, they aren’t self-conscious – they’re a bit more free. Kids don’t have to act. In that moment, that little girl really was hurting. It was important to have them there because it really brings you back.
The images are also about beauty and about Blackness.
Adamu: There are things we do every day that we take for granted. There are really miraculous, really beautiful things we do that we don’t really celebrate. Because it’s our culture, we’re so used to just doing it every two weeks. But we never celebrate it and say, “This takes a lot of time. This looks really good. My child looks amazing for Monday morning.” We wanted to use this as an opportunity, for us as Black men, to tell that story. It’s all about celebration and highlighting our people and these moments.
Rodney-Hall: The really cool thing about it was that because it was us as Black men taking photos of Black women – and including a Black doll – we made people feel like the story was about them. They owned it. There are mothers who have messaged me asking for prints saying, “I need my daughter to see this.” Having people accept the photos as their own was really cool.
Tell me about the doll.
Adamu: Part of it was this idea of continued learning. The mom already knows how to do hair the daughter must learn, and take over the shop. The doll is a way to practice that. And there’s this idea of love and emotional attachment. Sitting in your mother’s lap at home is a different experience from sitting in a chair at a hair salon. It was this public versus private experience. And more people were attached to the private experience.
We didn’t have them sit on the couch. They’re on the floor, and the daughter is in her lap. The whole scene is a very common thing in parts of Africa and in the Caribbean. My parents are Nigerian they moved here in 1988. Not everyone has the money or the resources to go to hair salons. The hair salon is the ground. A lot of things happen on the ground: eating happens on the ground, hair braiding happens on the ground. So that was about tradition. The house and other spaces turn into a space for bonding and love.
How does The Hair Appointment fit with Sunday School’s mission?
Rodney-Hall: It all goes back to relationships. It’s all about family and togetherness and community. That’s what all of these stories are about.
Courtesy of Sunday School
Check out The Hair Appointment here.
The Hair Appointment credits: Josef Adamu (director/producer) Jeremy Rodney-Hall (photographer) Sooflight (videography) Helena Koudou (co-producer) Habitat Adetonwa-Julmat (wardrobe styling) Ernest Robinson (beauty) Taylor, Yohana, Dayat, Azize, Hamza, Zakia, Jackie (talent)
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