‘Woza Sisi’ tracks the ways of street hairstylists

Representations of black women in South Africa often reflect the relationship a woman has with her hair. Beauty discourse extends beyond the corporeal and finds meaning in historical, political and circumstantial frames of thought. It’s this net of relationships that got photographer and graphic designer Dahlia Maubane to explore the complexity of these issues through her project, Woza Sisi.

Maubane looks at how women hairstylists in Johannesburg’s city centre and in Maputo “negotiate, navigate and shape complex demarcated trading zones, according to an article on The Market Photo Workshop site. It looks at the ways in which women position themselves; and how they use and negotiate urban spaces.

Visibility is important for hairstylists working informally; they have to call potential clients in a persuasive way — “Woza, sisi! Woza uzobona! Woza, nice!” according to The Market Photo Workshop.

The hairstylists in these images invest in creating an unforgettable experience; to keep customers returning and bringing in new customers through word-of-mouth, it adds.

The most recent chapter of the Woza Sisi project diverts to focus on the physical urban spaces in which the hairdressers live and work. Juxtaposing photographs of multiple viewpoints of Johannesburg and Maputo with tight interior views, this iteration negotiates the paradoxical multiplicity and singularity of hairdressing within these urban zones, The Market Photo Workshop says.

The first chapter of Woza Sisi dates back to 2012 and Maubane sought to expand the project with new chapters of photographs, produced with the support of the Market Photo Workshop Alumnus Award.

Some hairstylists are seeking customers and advertising on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and others are selling hair on Instagram. The pressure to go digital puts most women on the streets in a difficult position in terms of competing.

“Throughout the years, I have noticed how things have shifted. Buildings have been developed, technology is playing a role by making the process of attaining customers more convenient and also it has become more difficult to engage with the women,” The Bubblegum Club quoted Maubane as saying.

Not only does Woza Sisi highlight the politics and styles of black hair and the women behind it, it also highlights the informal trading sector for black women who rely on their skills to do hair for money.

The informal economy is invisible, yet still all around us. We’ve seen that it is growing at an organic pace unmatched by the formal sector.

The hair business is a thriving one, with hundreds of thousands of hair salons, ranging from rooms in women’s homes to colourful corrugated iron structures that sell styling and hair pieces.

The overlooked business side of informal hair salons is captured through Maubane’s lens. But she faced some difficulties when capturing these spaces.

“My biggest challenge has always been introducing myself to a potential subject, the woman I want to photograph,” says Maubane.

“It’s hard to approach the women. I am quite shy, so the whole process is tormenting. Some women blatantly refuse, some want money — I can’t offer that because of ethics. The rejection is something you can’t get used to.

“Also, some of the women have difficulty trusting me. They fear being seen by officials and having their identity compromised because they don’t have the correct paperwork for living in South Africa.”

Maubane’s project reveals how many of the women are in groups and have block leaders who make sure they adhere to the informal street trading by-laws of the city of Johannesburg. They also form networks of service providers, sharing ideas and skills; attracting and maintaining a clientele and producing value at a minimal cost while dealing with competition.

Maubane is not on a mission to stop any time soon.

“Since my exhibition opening, I have been working towards having the body of work being showcased across borders. It has been part of group exhibitions, at an art fair in Budapest, Hungary and most recently the LagosPhoto Festival in Nigeria. More exciting is the T-shirt range that I launched. The idea has always been to make Woza Sisi a brand and shift the notion that photography projects can only live in galleries or archival spaces. There are more ideas to be explored with this theme and I look forward to that.”

Ending off our chat, Maubane comments on her unique position.

“As a female photographer, there is only so much I can do. The aim is never to actively be an activist for women street hairstylists. I use my passion to tell their stories and empathise with them.”

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Zane Lelo Meslani
Guest Author

Related stories

Review: ‘Ikhaya Likamoya’ by Sethembiso Zulu — Ties that bind us all

Multimedia journalist and healer Sethembiso Zulu’s debut solo show embraces a fierce, raw and broken timelessness that encapsulates what it means to be human

Children who trade are an important part of the economy

The government should do more to develop and upskill these young entrepreneurs who are already street smart

The Portfolio: Thembinkosi Hlatshwayo

Photographer Thembinkosi Hlatshwayo's latest project, Slaghuis, is a recounting of the trauma he experienced growing up in his family’s tavern business

The category is… Living it up at Le Grand Ball

There was something completely different about this competition’s backstage dressing room. There were exclamations of insecurity, sure. But here, they came in...

Slice of life: ‘Now I create for myself’

I’m also no longer trying to create work for someone else

Can you spell ‘man bun’ in Futhark?

'In fact, combs are among the most frequently discovered relic of Viking society, indicating that they paid a lot of attention to their hair'

Sekhukhune’s five-year battle for water back in court

The residents of five villages are calling for the district municipal manager to be arrested

Fees free fall, independent schools close

Parents have lost their jobs or had salaries cut; without state help the schools just can’t survive

Vaccine trial results due in December

If successful, it will then have to be manufactured and distributed

White men still rule and earn more

Women and black people occupy only a few seats at the JSE table, the latest PwC report has found

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday