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Past Exhibitions

Hairdresser and Barbershop Signs in Africa

December 30th. 2009. – August 31st. 2010.

Exhibition and catalogue by:

Nataša Njegovanović Ristić, art-historian and MAA senior curator

Exhibition catalogue

Hairdresser and Barbershop Signs in Africa

Exhibition objects


About the exhibition

The “Hairdresser and Barbershop Signs of Africa” exhibition presents original boards from Cameroon, Senegal and the Central African Republic, alongside photographs documenting barbershop and hair-saloon signs in Togo, Benin, Ghana and Ivory Coast, dating from the 1970-ies to the present day, and stands as testimony of change characteristic of modern Africa and its popular art scene.

The advertising signs contain all aspects of a specific popular genre, with similarities and differences mirroring the times of their appearance – the stylistic signature, fashion trends and influences from abroad, at the same time revealing a strong respect for the traditional ways of combing hair – the starting point for almost all modern hairstyles. Inherited ideals that meet and merge with contemporary expressions, in this case, new and authentic stylizations and imported styles, create a harmonious symbiosis evident in varying formal designs in the context of elaborating hairstyles for the purpose of creating a visual embellishment of the head.

Advertising boards were made by specialised, self-taught artists, who used colours to paint previously determined motifs on wooden, plywood, or less commonly on metal surfaces, most often with the very expressive use of pure colours. The paintings mostly portrayed figure motifs which symbolised certain respectable professions, or certain products and brand names. Besides the pictorial, the boards also conveyed written messages and signs. This specific combination of symbol and written message which characterises African painted signs have not changed since the emergence of this art, except to the extent of corresponding to the spirit of the times.

Today there are a number of artists all over Africa who are specialized in the painting of advertising boards. Their work advertises a wide spectrum of products and professions – from movies, restaurants, hotels, discotheques, buses, car mechanics, cobblers, tailor shops, state, health and religious institutions to the new trendy hairstyles.

Barbershop Boards

The best clients are hairdressers and barbers, whose need for advertising a variety of styles, inspired by fashion trends, represents a constant income. Since fashion is ever-changing, barbers are in constant search of what is “trendy” which they are then able to offer their regular and potential clients, and therefore the boards that they make are a reflection of their familiarity with the fashion scene.

Barbershops mostly use two-dimensional boards in advertising. They depict the latest new trends in hairstyling. Since they contain many different hairstyles, they are also used as a catalogue from which clients can choose from a simple haircut to the more complicated styles. The visual expression of the board also includes titles of certain hairstyles, as well as the names of the tools the barber uses, or simply the numbers of the hairstyles.

Sometimes the painted motifs are based on famous personalities – idols, or the name of the country a certain model was taken from. Advertising hair signs from 1960s and 1970s, already suggested the strong influences of America’s public personas. Back then, male hairstyles had titles, such as “Muhammad Ali style”, “Tyson style”, “Kennedy style”, “Chubby Checker style”, “Beatle style”, “James Brown style”, “Pele style”, “Carl Louis style”, “African American style”, etc. The names of certain forms of combing often reflect the affinity towards speed or fast travelling. Some of them include titles such as “Super Concorde”, “Boeing 707”, “Overspeed”, and “Boeing style”.

These names suggest the popularity of certain destinations, such as New York, Santiago, Puerto Rico... More recently an influence of famous rap artists, such as Run DMC and drug subculture also contributed to the popularity of the so called “cocaine style”.

The male hairstyles also include styles dedicated to special professions, such as the police hairstyle, military, sports hairstyle, senior clerk hairstyle, sailor, judge, federal, executive hairstyle, etc., whereas certain painted hairstyles represent original creations of the hairdressers, whose slogan is: “Special offer of the house”. Hairdressers and hairstylists who used this offer believed that their styles would become fashionable and attract the clients of the competition.

Hairdresser Boards

Unlike situated barbers, to this day, women can be seen sitting on the ground between the legs of the hairdresser, which suggests that female hairdressing does not require a special workspace. A large number of female hairdressers have been practicing their skills for decades on the porches of their houses, or under trees, near their homes, at open markets or other public places, often sitting next to their illustrated colourful boards, offering a variety of illustrated hairstyles. The practice of female hairdressing points out to the links between traditional ways of combing that were practiced within family circle. The styles of combing, in spite of the new visual expressions were still based on traditional forms that were adjusted to current times.

There were two ways to comb the hair: the first was to make small plaits following the scalp of the head, creating straight, curvy or asymmetrical lines that went starting from the forehead, down to neck. The second, more complicated way includes the use of other materials (artificial hair, cotton, wool or thread) that help create braids of different length and a variety of original hairstyles. A large number of tiny or larger queues made out of a woman’s own hair with all the added materials, made different types of styling possible – elegant, attractive and sophisticated hairdos, moulded in a range of forms, from the simple to more complex ones, square or high, oval or cone shaped, to spiky, round, spiral or knotty shapes, symmetrical or asymmetrical.

Female hairstyles today emphasise the vitality of ancient stylisations, which are enriched in each special way with new motifs, meanings and messages. New styles are often firmly linked to major events in the social and political spheres, and hairstyles point to the most significant event. As women prefer combing and hairstyling at home, there are fewer boards made for female hairstyling, compared to boards made for advertising male hairstyles. In Togo, Ghana and Benin, however, a significant number of hairdresser advertising boards are intended for women, and are an example of the artists approach to the painted motifs and his skill in creating a harmonious composition.