Studio Africa: Nigerian Photographer Andrew Esiebo On The Fantasy-Spaces Of West African Barbershops

Andrew Esiebo talks barbershop fantasies and the urban fabric with Okayafrica.

In the first installment of Okayafrica's new Studio Africa series, Emmanuel Iduma sits down with Nigerian photographer Andrew Esiebo.

Photographs from Andrew Esiebo's Pride, a series on West African barbershops, are currently on view at the Walther Collection, New York, until April 23—part of the group exhibition Close to Home. In documenting spaces of habit, Esiebo indicates what's otherwise overlooked in popular culture. His work, he says, begins with curiosity. Rather than ending up with the obscure and outlandish, he reminds us that our routines betray a sense of truth. My conversation with him brings to light what he aims for in his documentary work, and the stories that informed Pride.

Emmanuel Iduma for Okayafrica: In general, what draws you to social spaces like barbershops?

Andrew Esiebo: It's just intuition. I'm more interested in people involved in work that connects to communities. You find these quirky barber shops in almost every part of Lagos, where my project started. They are part of the fabric of the city.

The idea of doing a series on barber shops made sense to me when I met a guy whose shop is by Dodan Barracks. He said that although people might consider barbers common, he's proud to say he cut the hair of one of our presidents— Ernest Shonekan. It made me more conscious of the power of being a barber.

I've become more aware of how hair creates a social identity. I have bushy hair now. When I meet someone who doesn't know me, they look at my hairstyle and ask, "Oh, are you a comedian? Are you an actor?" How your hair looks can put you in a certain social box.

Andrew Esiebo, Pride, Benin. Courtesy of the photographer.

In the photographs, especially those at the Walther Collection, we see posters and TVs in the barber shops. What does this say about the barber shop as a repository for popular images? What did that mean to you while you were working on the series?

I call it local-global in the sense that, through those images, people are transported from Lagos to New York—thinking of those pop-stars like Jay Z, or Akon. Somehow the images fulfill people's fantasies of becoming those stars. So those images are kind of reinforcing or reminding people, “I want to be like this one day." Sometimes the barbers have icons or images that reflect their religious or political positions. I mean, I remember a barber in Mali who adorned his walls with great African leaders and the killers of Osama bin Laden.

Yeah, and Gaddafi.

He was so sad that Gaddafi been killed. Gaddafi for him was a true African, generous to Mali. So it's interesting how people use their shops to extend their faith and to propagate it. When I was in Senegal which is considered to be Islamic, I asked a barber why he hung the pictures of sexy women. He told me, “You know what? Men like these things. It's a way of attracting them to come and see sexy women in my shop. Sometimes, they even ask me if I have phone numbers for these ladies."

Andrew Esiebo, Pride, Mali. Courtesy of the photographer.

It's a marketing strategy to attract men to his shop. So yeah. It's a manifestation of many of these barbers' social reality.

You've worked a lot within social spaces like football fields, betting shops, and churches, especially in Nigeria. What was the most important thing that Pride highlighted to you about West African social spaces?

It shows we're the same. What I found is a similar pattern in the way people design their shops, even those icons, and the similar patterns in the styles of haircut. People have the same imagination of how they want themselves to look. Or perhaps the barbers create a similar imagination for people.

Here in Nigeria I know some guys who will cut certain hairstyles to stand out. You have the same perception in other countries. A guy I met in Senegal had a hairstyle they call melon. I said, “Why do you have to cut this hair style?" He said, “To show I'm independent. I mean, I pay my bills and if my family don't like it, to hell with them." Africans from West Africa are similar. It's just political boundaries that makes us different.

Andrew Esiebo, Pride, Ghana. Courtesy of the photographer.
Also, these are really charged male spaces.

Yeah. This project made me conscious of gendered spaces. I'm not used to being in women's spaces. I remember a lady in Liberia who couldn't come to the salon to cut her hair when there were guys. I remember I was trying to shoot her, but she was shy. I never knew that women could be shy in a space like that. After then, I found myself in a female salon, and I realized I was not so comfortable there. These spaces can affect people's feeling or sense of esteem.

Your work around public spaces in Nigeria documents the aspirations of many Nigerians. How do these images articulate what Nigerians are struggling with? Or, what you are struggling with in your attempt to understand Nigeria and West Africa?

It's a still a journey for me. I will not say it's as a result of struggle, but my curiosity and consciousness. I'm very lucky to put that into visual reality through photography. I don't look at the reality of where I live and look away. I look at those things and document them, think over them, and find possible ways to articulate conversations or engagement.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Andrew Esiebo, Pride, Mali. Courtesy of the photographer.
Andrew Esiebo, Pride, Mali. Courtesy of the photographer.
Andrew Esiebo, Pride, Mali. Courtesy of the photographer.
Andrew Esiebo, Pride, Mali. Courtesy of the photographer.
Andrew Esiebo, Pride, Mali. Courtesy of the photographer.
Andrew Esiebo, Pride, Ghana. Courtesy of the photographer.
Andrew Esiebo, Pride, Ghana. Courtesy of the photographer.
Andrew Esiebo, Pride, Côte d'Ivoire. Courtesy of the photographer.
Andrew Esiebo, Pride, Côte d'Ivoire. Courtesy of the photographer.
Emmanuel Iduma is a writer and art critic. He writes about historical and contemporary Nigerian photographs for The Trans-African.

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