John Alleyne looks at their hair first.

But he's not interested in the latest style. Alleyne is checking out the statement that person is making.

"It's like a signifier," he said. "It's also a study in expression. I grew dreadlocks as a way to grab hold of my Barbadian heritage, so I look at what it says about my subjects."

Alleyne's subjects are African-American men in barbershops, which not only closely aligns him with the subjects but also with what their hair has to say.

"I started out taking photos of men in barbershops, but then I noticed the posters in these shops," Alleyne said. "There was a difference between the photos I took and the posters because the men in these posters are anonymous."

And by using the posters and that anonymity, Alleyne could explore his subjects with no preconceived personalities, creating his own voice through his mix of paint, screen prints and paper collages.

The project has resulted in the 16 pieces covering the Southern University Visual Art Gallery's walls in a show he's titled "Kindred Spirits in Conversations," which runs through Nov. 15.

Alleyne, 28, received his master's degree from LSU last spring, after getting his undergraduate degree in graphic design from the State University of New York at Potsdam. Born in Barbados, where he lived until age 16, Alleyne moved with his dad to Brooklyn, New York. His mother was a teacher in Barbados, now a principal.

The evolution of Alleyne's work is represented in the show, beginning with torn prints on canvases and ending with screen-printed images that stand on their own.

The faces are from barbershop posters that he screen prints.

"But I don't do it in the traditional way," he said. "I hold the frame and move it while I'm making the print. That way, I can manipulate the faces and the hair."

The images are torn and layered on canvas, the way street posters are done in New York or on college campuses.

"I wanted to pay tribute to that," he said. "And I wanted to pay tribute to street art. Street art is the first artwork I saw when I moved to New York."

Street art influences also can be seen in the show's only painting, a 6-by-18-foot explosion of color he calls "Electric Culturalization." 

But, when asked to choose his most outstanding piece, Alleyne points to his collage "Luke 12:48," based on the Bible verse: "But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked."

Dominating the canvas is the large, blurred face of neurosurgeon Ben Carson, now secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"I believe Dr. Carson is a great man and has accomplished a lot in his life, but I don't agree with everything he says, especially some of the things he said when he was running for president in 2016," Alleyne said.

"He said African slaves were immigrants," Alleyne continued. "That's wrong. In this piece, I've included a diagram of a slave ship, and I screen printed Power Rangers inside the diagram to represent the power on that ship."

Alleyne admitted this part of the process was daunting because each Power Ranger had to be individually printed. But the effort achieved his goal of showing power, just as the hairstyles throughout the exhibit depict individuals making up one community.

"This show is more than hair," Alleyne said. "It's about the power of men in the black community and who they are."


'Kindred Spirits in Conversations'

An exhibit of John Alleyne's works

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and by appointment. Through Nov. 15.

WHERE: Southern University's Visual Arts Gallery in Frank Hayden Hall

ADMISSION/INFO: Free. For an appointment, call (225) 771-4109 or email randell_henry@subr.edu.

Follow Robin Miller on Twitter, @rmillerbr.