Bright, loud and competitive these advertising boards depict the latest hairstyles in fashion. They are carried either by itinerant barbers or nailed to salon walls, enticing the passer-by to stop a moment for a fabulous grooming experience!
The intention of barber posters is commercial. They are painted on commission, as adverts in sign writers’ studios by young men out to earn a living. The talented painter uses a variety of techniques, bright colours, dots, starbursts and crests to activate the surface of the poster, hoping to visually outdo competitive salons around the corner.
Better than any art expression of present time they represent the transition from African rural to contemporary urban life. These posters testify to the encounter with Western culture as they are influenced by photographic images, pictures of pop idols and soccer icons. Also, many of the heads on posters are actual portraits alluding to an Americanised subculture amongst African youth which undoubtedly has challenged traditional norms and values. Haircut names underpin this: Eddie Murphy cut, Tyson style, Franco Nero. The names of foreign destinations refer to the aspirations of the youth for international travel and a jet- set lifestyle: New York angle, Santiago, concord zip cut, boeing 707 and cocaine cut amongst others.
In Ghana, barber posters are colourful and realistically rendered. Their directness of message, honesty of style and humour captivate the viewer immediately! From the hilarious names to the odd cartoonlike characters festooning the board in outrageous poses. The artistic style found in Mali is totally different. One considers them beautiful in their simplicity of composition, and classic representation as the faces are drawn with a single line over a coloured background. There is a sense of solemnity about them, and the subdued colour palette contrasts the jazzy up-beat atmosphere of the Ghana posters. When comparing the painterly images from these 2 countries, it is like comparing a page of calligraphy with effigies of catholic saints, both genres are beautiful and have their place.
Sign writers and their patrons commissioning these posters have inadvertently changed the way these paintings are perceived. Collectors in the fine art market have reassessed them as contemporary African art and are now attuned to the potential of this humble art form.