/ 23 November 2018

‘Woza Sisi’ tracks the ways of street hairstylists

Choices: A woman selling hairpiece waits for potential customers
Choices: A woman selling hairpiece waits for potential customers (Dahlia Maubane)

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.”