ART + CULTURE: Simon Weller explores South Africa’s barbershop culture
Images: Simon Weller
Words: Emma de Clercq
While travelling across Botswana, Namibia and South Africa in 2009, British photographer Simon Weller came across many rural roadside salons and barbershops, built from shipping containers and other makeshift structures. As a former graphic designer, he was drawn to the vivid hand-painted signage and eye-catching artwork that adorned them.
He began to document the townships, traveling with guides and shooting with low-key equipment to capture the shops and salons in a realistic light. Not knowing how he would be received, and how people would feel about being photographed, Weller found that the response to the project was in fact overwhelmingly positive. The images focus primarily on the barbershop art; the distinctive painted imagery and signs, and the artists who created them. Recurring themes are obvious here, in both style and subject, with images of successful African American stars such as Tupac Shakur, Will Smith and Beyoncé among the most prominently featured.
What originally began as a project to document these artworks quickly became something deeper, as Weller came to understand the role that the barbershops play as community hubs. The resulting images highlight the social significance of these shops and salons, really bustling social spaces where different generations congregate and stories are shared.
The photographs are accompanied by interviews with the shop owners and their customers, building a rounded portrait of town life and the continuing social and political struggles. The images are vibrant and distinctly celebratory; a positive portrayal of community as well as a tribute to the dynamic work of South Africa’s prolific barbershop artists.