‘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

South Africa’s advertising industry has a long way to go

White-owned advertising agencies need to change, but fundamentally, projects aimed at black people need to be given to agencies that are black-owned or have at least demonstrated that they understand the market

Hair to the rescue as oil spills blight coastlines

Synthetic materials are effective in mopping up oil but human hair is cheaper and is biodegradable

Whites should stop poking the lion

Dismissing black people’s pain is dehumanising

What’s wrong with the TRESemmé advert?

Is ‘fine and flat’ a compliment or an insult? Depends who you ask...

Paddy Harper: Anti-racism is the mane thing

What we want: Ramaphosa to cough up a hairball, racists in hair shirts and consumer boycotts that don’t turn hairy

Eusebius McKaiser: Arguments to challenge your inner racist

These three common responses to racism must be deconstructed until something ... clicks

Subscribers only

The shame of 40 000 missing education certificates

Graduates are being left in the lurch by a higher education department that is simply unable to deliver the crucial certificates proving their qualifications - in some cases dating back to 1992

The living nightmare of environmental activists who protest mine expansion

Last week Fikile Ntshangase was gunned down as activists fight mining company Tendele’s expansions. Community members tell the M&G about the ‘kill lists’ and the dread they live with every day

More top stories

Fifteen witnesses for vice-chancellor probe

Sefako Makgatho University vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mbati had interdicted parliament last month from continuing with the inquiry

Constitutional Court ruling on restructuring dispute is good for employers

A judgment from the apex court empowers employers to change their workers’ contracts — without consultation

Audi Q8: Perfectly cool

The Audi Q8 is designed to be the king in the elite SUV class. But is it a victim of its own success?

KZN officials cash in on ‘danger pay for Covid-19’

Leadership failures at Umdoni local municipality in KwaZulu-Natal have caused a ‘very unhappy’ ANC PEC to fire the mayor and chief whip

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday