Obidike Okafor takes a closer look at Andrew Esiebo's journey across eight West African cities in the first quarter of 2012 on a photographic exploration of the phenomenon of male haircuts.
Benin. Courtesy of the artist
By Obidike Okafor 2. October 2013
Barbers are a privileged class in Africa. Parents, wives and maybe children are the only ones allowed to touch a man’s head, because the head is a symbol of wealth, destiny and leadership. Barbers are amongst the privileged who have access to a man’s “wealth”(read head) – everyone remembers the touch of his wife and loved ones but who remembers the man that cuts hair? Andrew Esiebo does.
Everyone needs a barber, from the president of a country to the common man on the street. Esiebo explains it better: “I once met a barber in Lagos who recounted the ways in which his profession, despite being perceived as common and unimportant, enabled him to interact with important people; he even counted an ex-President among his clientele. This, he explained, brought him a great sense of pride.”
Andrew Esiebo set out on a journey across eight West African cities in the first quarter of 2012 on a photographic exploration of the phenomenon of male haircuts; the project titled “Pride” was sponsored by Musée Du Quai Branly, Paris.
Like their female counterparts – the salon – a barbershop is filled with all the intrigues of the African male identity, as it represents a place where he submits himself to the barber to help shape the way he looks, and it is also an avenue for male egos to explode in pockets of conversation found in barber shops. The sense of pride these barbers derive in designing hair, from simple low cuts to crowd pulling Mohawks, informs the basis of this project.
The project helps to create alternative stories for Africa, it tells the story of how hairstyles affect individual and collective identities, it highlights the social impact haircuts have in African society. The pictures document the variety of hair styles and capture in detail the spaces in which barbers operate throughout major Western African cities. The project looks at the material and aesthetic worlds of barber shops, the iconographies and symbols that create an intimate-public convergence of people from all walks of life.
The cities which include Lagos, Accra, Abidjan, Monrovia, Bamako and Dakar, like a GPS show the urban spaces where the salons are located. Barber shops can be found in every corner of these cities. These shops marry the West African landscape in a way that touches the soul of the street, in such a way, that whether it’s an improvised chair on the sidewalk that changes a man’s profile or a fancy shop in the commercial neighborhood, they meet the needs of their customers.
Another fascinating element is the signs that welcome customers into the barber’s world. The signs, often hand painted in shiny colours with bizarre reproductions of hair clippers and hair styles, are a reflection of how tradition and modernity exist side by side
The barbershop is also a melting pot, where global culture meets the different nuances of the African local material world, as can be seen by the religious imagery. Hip-hop artists, soccer teams and icons of the black culture share the same visual space. The photographer uses the mirror in some places to show the reflections of these surreal encounters, incorporating the customers in these scenarios made of fantasy, desires and aspirations.
Hairstyle, the one thing that shapes our physical outlook and the reason we are grateful to the man with the clippers, reflects the multiple cultural identities dwelling in African urban societies. Esiebo is planning to release a book of the photographic collection and a travelling exhibition to celebrate the African barber whose “pride” has shaped the pride of the continent.
Obidike Okafor is a content consultant, freelance art journalist and documentary film maker based in Lagos.