"Alisko Hair Cut" by Brian Chankin

In Gwyneth Jones’s sci-fi novel Phoenix Cafe, set in a distant future, the protagonists visit a museum in which remnants of 20th-century advertising, including a Coke bottle, are displayed for aesthetic contemplation. The difference between advertising and art has been reduced to a matter of context—a function of how you look at it as much as what it is. Likewise “Sportin’ Waves,” an exhibit of hand-painted Ghanaian barbershop and salon signage from the 90s to the present organized by collector Brian Chankin, is hung in the Strange Beauty Show hair salon, reminding us how arbitrary the category of art can be. Here are signs advertising salons hanging in a salon, “art” simply by agreement of viewer and exhibitor.

And so iconography that’s surely conventional for the barbershop customer—disembodied heads floating beside scissors or combs or less identifiable paraphernalia—becomes, in this context, jarring, humorous, or daring. An ad for the Mavis Beauty Salon, featuring eyes against a starry background and a hand reaching out toward an elaborate coiffure, was no doubt originally meant to promote makeup and manicure services. It comes across here as disturbing and ominous, like the poster for some low-budget horror film, perhaps by Jess Franco.

But the main reaction I had to these pictures is probably exactly what the artists intended: Is that hairstyle real? Can they really make someone’s hair do that? The braided updo over there; the cartoon character apparently shaved into the back of someone’s scalp; the geometric patterns on the side of that head . . . how, why, where, when did anybody get those things done? You don’t know whether to gawk or gasp or laugh or just be intrigued—reactions that work equally well wherever the posters are hung, whether as advertising or as art.