While attending a performance of the Philadelphia Live Arts & Fringe Festival at the Crane Arts Building in the revitalization-is-underway Northern Liberties section, I chanced upon Indigo Arts, a gallery that specializes in folk and tribal art from Asia, Africa and Mexico. In the large lofty space are Haitian sculptures made from steel oil cans, baskets woven from telephone wire, paintings by self-taught Cuban artists and, most unusual, African barbershop signboards.
From such countries as Ghana, Mali, Benin, Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast and Togo, the signs are brightly painted in commercial house paints on plywood or Masonite. Colorful, humorous and sometimes outrageous, the form of contemporary African folk art reflects both the ancient African tradition of hair-braiding and hair-cutting and the cultural clash of imported (usually American) influences.
In Africa a barbershop or hair salon may entail nothing more elaborate than a barber or hair-braider with a chair set up in the open and a signboard hanging from a tree or market stall. The signs may be painted by the barbers or hairdressers themselves, or by paid sign artists. They are intended both to identify the businesses and to advertise the services offered, depicting a catalog of intricate women’s hair-braiding patterns or the latest in men’s hair styles.
Several important museum shows have featured African Hair-dresser’s signs, including Crowning Achievements: African Arts of Dressing the Hair at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at UCLA in 1995 and Hair in African Art and Culture at the Museum of African Art in New York in 2000. African hair signs were also featured in a Jan. 6, 2002, Style article in The New York Times Magazine.