Sunday, July 1, 2012

South African Township Barbershops & Salons by Simon Weller

Available from Amazon in a hardcover edition.

This is an odd book for me to write about considering the theme of this blog but I can connect it with a bit of a stretch. As a reader of South African crime fiction I am used to seeing the shebeens mentioned as gathering places in townships though, mainly, for the low-life gangster elements. With this book I learned that the barbershops and beauty salons are better representations of a township's community hub.

I have a nostalgic feeling for small town barbershops. I think of scenes from Norman Rockwell and Floyd's Barbershop in the Andy Griffith Show. Weller's book made me wonder what it would be like to have this sort of gathering place when the sense of a neighborhood has all but disappeared.

Weller got the idea for the book while visiting a township in 2009. He noticed that barbershops and beauty solons were thriving and became intrigued with names like Try Again Hair Shop and Let's Fix It Barbershop and the vivid hand-painted artwork used to identify these shops.

The author shows the "sharp and snappy vernacular designs" used to advertise the barbershops and beauty salons in Johanesburg, rural townships, Durban, and Cape Town but it isn't entirely a photo essay. He includes interviews with proprietors, customers, and artists. He shows these informal barbershops as community hubs in the townships.

Since many of these shops are truly informal and not licensed, the ingenuity of the proprietors to meet the challenges of the locations is remarkable. You find them in old shipping containers where  electricity might come from car batteries and the water is in buckets from neighborhood taps.

Weller needed local guides to approach these shops. A white man wanting to photograph your business  is not something that would immediately yield acceptance and trust in the townships. When they saw that Weller might be odd but not a threat the shop owners, artists, and patrons were mostly open to him taking photographs and talking with him.

In the rural township of Dzanani in the Northern Limpopo, Weller decided to have his hair cut in King Tiger's Hair Clinique. Since KingTiger had never cut a white man's hair it was subject to much amusement for the other customers. He described the result as a cross between a U.S. Marine and a character from Bevis & Butthead.

The photographs in South African Township Barbershops & Solons are a pleasure to view and I frequently find myself looking at the cover with its functional if chaotic dangling wires and leafing through it again and again. The interviews give the photographs the humanity, the purpose or role behind the settings.

This is the kind of book that is a pleasure to own. In addition to the content, it is well bound in hardcover with an excellent layout and beautiful photographs. I keep it out rahter than shelve it.

If I was to write a crime novel where the detective or police officer ventured into a township I would definitely have my character visit these shops to find out what was happening in the community.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in graphic arts, photography, advertising, and, most important, life in South Africa.