West Africa is not a monoculture. Even within one country, you will encounter a staggering range of diversity. But no matter where you are here, you can count on one thing: an abundance of hand-painted barbershop/ladies' hair salon signs along roads large and small. I mean, yes, there are eccentric, handpainted signs of all sorts, but there's something about hair salons — they're a big deal, the art form is very specific, and the signs are everywhere.
Here in French-speaking Benin, where I've been traveling for a while, this holds true from the tiniest, most remote village in the far north, all the way down to the more urban coastal enclaves near the sprawling, aggressive port capital of Cotonou. "Coiffure et Tresse," most read, along with intricate, quirky paintings of how awesome you'll look if you step inside. Some of them reference black American pop culture or hip-hop stars who are seen as style idols ("Le Puff Daddy," etc.). I expect some to reference Obama, eventually. Maybe they already do, and I just missed 'em.
Last night over dinner here in Cotonou with a (super cool!) Boing Boing reader who's lived here for a few years, and another expat who works here, we were all talking about their prevalence. The expats agreed that the signs almost seems to outnumber the potential clients!
I didn't manage to snap many very good photos of them myself (one quick video still I shot, not great, is at the bottom of this post). But today, we visited the Zinsou foundation in Cotonou (named after this historic figure, they have a gallery which just held a "Bénin in 2056" futuristic art show), and I bought a rad book in their bookshop about this urban art form.
Ici Bon Coiffeur, by Jean-Marie Lerat (1992, in French), is the most comprehensive look at West African barbershop art I've ever seen. Above, the cover. The book is divided into sections that showcase the work of various artists, in various West African countries (Senegal, Burkina, Ghana, and so on). The photos are wonderful, and I appreciated how respectfully the author/photographer treats these artists and their individual forms.
Here's an Amazon link where you can buy a copy (they're spendy, because they're out of print, but used copies seem to be available). If you know of other good photo-books on this topic, I'd love to hear from you in the comments! (Merci beaucoup, Hugo van Tilborg!)
Below: a quick video still I shot of a ladies' hair salon (see the little painted sign outside?) near Abomey (Benin).
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