The black townships of South Africa seem to be the fertile ground for at least one kind of entrepreneurialism, the Barbershop & Salon. Popping up over night in some cases, they offer their communities something of a social nerve center; a place where people catch up, share the latest gossip, soccer game recaps and such whilst getting a trim, the latest fade and hair grooming.
British photographer, Simon Weller recently released his first publication, South African Township Barbershops & Salons. A book that documents this vernacular signage art, often referred to as “naive”, not out of condescension but rather speaking to the informality of the style. We caught up with Weller this Spring to get an in-depth interview into the evolution of this project.
Missla Libsekal | What sparked your curiosity to document South African Township barbershops and salons and how did that translate into becoming your first book?
Simon Weller | During a road trip across Botswana and Namibia in early 2009 I had seen a number of rural roadside barbershops and was fascinated by their artwork. When I visited a black township in Cape Town, I saw literally dozens of similar businesses. It became a bit of an obsession yet I didn’t get much of a chance to document them. I made a plan to return to South Africa and explore the project properly. About a month after I returned home, I had told a few friends about my idea and one recommended me to an art publisher in NYC who specialised in exactly this kind of book. After a number of conversations with them I was offered a publishing deal and made plans to go back to South Africa and shoot. I started the project in Johannesburg in early November 2009.
From concept to realisation, how long did it take to put the project together?
It was just under two years, from initial ideas through to the book hitting the shelves.
For someone interesting in launching a creative project such as this, what words of advise would you give?
I think it’s very easy to assume that everything has been done before. After seeing so many barbershops in the townships I assumed there would already have been a book published on the subject. I searched online and realised there wasn’t anything out there. If belief you have a good idea then anything is possible. I got my publishing deal on a couple of paragraphs and half a dozen photographs.
A healthy dose of keeping your wits about you when venturing into the unknown is surely pragmatic whatever new adventure one might take, how much planning and research did you do prior to your trip and what are some golden rules that you apply when travelling?
My first trip to South Africa in early 2009 showed me that the townships were not a place to fear. After I signed my publishing deal I began to make plans to return. I was very lucky to have a good friend in Johannesburg who helped me find my first couple of guides. I have to be honest, I really did not know what to expect. I wasn’t sure if people would be happy to have their photo taken and whether they would expect payment. I was working on a tiny budget and although I paid all my guides well I wasn’t able to pay everyone I spoke to.
I think local knowledge is key. I wouldn’t dream of going into these areas and wander around on my own without a guide, I think it would be asking for trouble. It was out of respect for the locals as well as my own safety – what I quickly understood was that it simply was not appropriate for a white man to walk around taking photographs in the townships. Having a resident show me around, introduce me to people, translate for me and really give me a good background to their community was essential.
I also think that having good intentions was a huge help. When people found out I was working on a book about barbershop culture they were really happy. It’s not often that a positive story comes out of the townships, especially from areas like Alexandra in Jo’burg , which is notorious for its poverty, disease and racial violence.
The last thing to mention is that I tried to be as low key as possible with my camera gear. I shot the entire book on 35mm film, using a small Contax G2 rangefinder camera and available light. I carried a tiny tripod for interiors and not a lot else.
What were your impressions of community life in the townships you visited? ie. the local barbershop being the local community hang out, gossip nerve-centre etc…. reminds me of the barber shop scene in Eddie Murphy’s film, “Coming To America.”
The barbershop is the place to hang out! It’s a real uniting spot where people of all ages can get together. People congregate to talk about the big soccer game, movies, politics and everyday life. Many of the businesses are actually based upon the owner’s desire to bring the barbershops they have seen in Hollywood movies to their own country. That scene in ‘Coming To America’ is pretty spot on – it’s a place to debate, gossip and have a laugh. Interestingly the barbershops are viewed as a good social alternative to the shebeens (pubs) that many view as being the downfall of many a good person into alcoholism.
You interviewed seasoned South African graphic designer, Garth Walker who was documenting this visual domain already in the mid 90’s in his magazine Ijusi. He describes the aesthetic of this local vernacular sign-writing as appealing to Western artists because it looks good, has no concept but is joyous. Would you agree? How would you describe it?
I feel so lucky to have met Garth in Durban. He really gave me a fantastic insight into what I was documenting. I completely agree with his views on vernacular art and design – some of my favourite township art was created by people who have never been to art school and just paint from the heart, with no knowledge or interest in the rules of typography or using the “right kind” of paint. In my opinion this makes for really expressive, sometimes naive but almost always endearing artwork. It’s very DIY in places. Interestingly, most of the sign-writers didn’t look at their work as art but as marketing. A couple of them were disappointed I was focussing on their barbershop work and not their real art, which was often paintings of traditional African life.
Were there any themes that you found to be more common than others? Any motifs particularly interesting? Are there genres to signwriting?
I would have to say the theme that was everywhere was African American stars. Rapper Tupac Shakur was by far the most popular character to be painted on barbershops, alongside R Kelly, P Diddy, Will Smith and Beyonce. The residents of the townships really look to America as the success story for black people.
Global icons, typically Hip Hop, Rap, R&B seem to be common place in the visual world of Township barbershops, were there any South African or broader still African icons that you became familiar with during your documentation?
Strangely there were very few African icons on the barbershops, usually just generic portraits of men and women’s hairstyles. I did see a couple of paintings of Nelson Mandela, one of Robert Mugabe and a framed photograph of Haile Selassie.
You met signwriters that are from other parts of the African continent besides South Africa, such as Espoir Kennedy from Burundi, can you tell us if the artists’ background and culture influenced their style or perhaps about any other influences?
It seemed to me that the artists from other parts of Africa quite often had superior artistic skills to the local South African signwriters. I think education is a big part of this and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of support for aspiring black South African artists when they are in school. Garth Walker showed me some amazing barbershop art from Ghana which was extremely slick. I was actually much more interested in this idea of ‘Do It Yourself Art’ though which was really the South African specialty.
What are your thoughts on appropriation of aesthetic? It seems that appropriation is not an issue neither for the barbershop owners or for the signwriting artists, who are often asked to repeat designs. It seems like copyright and exclusivity aren’t particularly important notions?
It was sometimes hard to tell if there was either one incredibly prolific signwriter in Cape Town or if everyone was copying one artist! I would see the portrait of the same man in areas miles and miles apart. There’s definitely no thought of copyright and exclusivity in much of barber art.
In Umlazi, a township outside the city of Durban it seemed that every barber wanted Espoir Kennedy to paint identical artworks for them. I found this to be strange as there was no individuality to any of the businesses. This was highlighted by the fact that the most basic DIY graphics on a couple of salons actually made them more individual! I do realise that I’m coming from a background of western graphic design and art and this probably wouldn’t deter prospective customers.
How powerful have you found the “fear of the unknown” to be, after all you have ventured into areas which are said to be dangerous?
I definitely have a fear of the unknown. When I first went to Johannesburg I’ll admit to being terrified of the townships, mainly from stories in the media and from some of my white South African friends. However, I am also incredibly curious about places I am told I cannot go to and that led me to visit the townships in Cape Town. I really didn’t want to go to South Africa and only experience the white culture there. I am so glad to have been able to learn of the many sides of this wonderful country.
Do you have any myths that were dispelled through your travels throughout South Africa?
I think a huge one was that the townships are crime ridden and lawless. I’m not going to pretend that they’re aren’t dangerous criminals in these areas but from my experience they don’t generally commit crime in their own neighbourhoods. Early on in my trip I was told that the police have very little presence in the townships and the community has resorted to enforcing it’s own form of justice, metering out incredibly harsh punishments to criminals. This really does seem to act as a deterrent and I actually felt safer in the townships than in some of the white suburbs where my friends live. Another myth I had heard was that township residents still have an intense hatred for white people, dating back to the bad old days of Apartheid. Actually, most residents told me they have no problem with whites now and for the most part I experienced great warmth and hospitality across the country.
Do you have plans to exhibit the photographs and perhaps even sell prints in the future?
I am very keen to show the photographs in a gallery. I would like to take an exhibition to a number of major international cities, probably starting in either NYC, LA or London. A major priority for me is to launch an exhibition in South Africa. I have a dream to take a mobile art gallery to all the townships I shot in, maybe in an old converted shipping container. I think it’s very important to give something back to all of the communities I spent so much time in. Funding is a big issue but I’m going to see if I can find sponsorship to make it happen. I think it could be a really great event.
Regarding prints, yes I’m going to be selling both digital and photographic prints from 35mm negative. They will be available to order through my website.
When and where can interested readers purchase your book?
Most bookstores should be able to order the book. In North America the distributor is Random House and in the rest of the world it is Thames & Hudson. It is also available online at Amazon.
Simon Weller is a British-born photographer currently based in Nevada City, California. Though trained as a graphic designer, following an eight month North American road trip, Weller decided to put his graphic tablet to rest and in it’s place turned to professional photography. Working with clients such as EMI Records, Bloomsbury, Wired Magazine, the Tate Gallery and compelled by a curiosity to go out and experience his world, Weller has built up an extensive image library which is now part of both Corbis and Getty images archives. In 2007 without warning, tragedy struck with the unexpected death of his younger brother, whom this first solo book is dedicated too. As a means to try to survive a most traumatic time, Weller once again turned to travel and photography. His experiences took him from Europe through Russia in on to China via the Trans-Mongolian railway. Weller has found comfort and regained hope through his numerous travels and life-changing experiences. His journey to South Africa
All images courtesy of the artist, Simon Weller. All rights reserved.