Malcolm Smith

Copyright 2007-2012
Built with Indexhibit

Signature Hair
Part of the Disana Project
Curated by Kieren Sanderson

Cemeti Arthouse
December 2013

I have had bad hair since I was a teenager. For me, spending Rp6000 or Rp240,000 on a haircut gets the same result: more bad hair. But many of my friends have signature hair; hair that tells the world this person is unique, charming, charismatic and a bit dangerous…

For the Disana project I set out on a mission to uncover the secrets of signature hair; the barber shops, the styles, the products and the grooming techniques involved into turning your head into your personal billboard.

I starting visiting all of the barbershops in my area, chatting to the barbers, photographing their shops and in the process, getting more haircuts in 2 weeks than I’ve had in the past year. I noticed that in each shop there were posters of hairstyles presumably for the punters to choose the style they wanted. Men like myself have difficulty articulating to barbers how they want their hair cut, so this seemed like a good idea to me.

Many of the posters dated back since the 80’s. their colours had faded to a pale bluey green. The styles seemed humorously outdated and that’s what initially attracted me to them. But the process of photographing them and then painting them as portraits changed that.

Initially I didn’t really have a plan, I just enjoyed the challenge of working with brush and ink to make small portraits of men with anachronistic hairdos. But each portrait took quite a while to complete, maybe half an hour, and over that time I would think about the anonymous subjects; Who were they? Where did they come from? Where are they now? Some were clearly professional models, others seemed to just be passers by, unwittingly offering themselves up to thousands of barbershops across the country, and to generations of Indonesian men for the next several decades.

Most of them appear to be from Asia, although I’m not really sure if they are from Indonesia or not. But I like to think that this series represents Indonesian men if not directly, then indirectly through the haircuts they’ve had over their lives.

As the series progressed, I realised it was not enough to simply record the hairstyles I liked. I began to construct categories and typologies. I made selections like ‘style korea’, or ‘big 80’s hair’ and then, as I began to run out of obvious subjects, more obscure typologies like ‘looking to the left’ or men whose hands were in the photos, as in the series ‘Body Language’.

The obsessiveness of the collector crept up on me. My daily excursions to uncover new portraits in new barbershops meant I had to travel each day further and further afield, seeking out collecting tips and recommendations from anyone who was willing to indulge me. Initially I expected to complete 24 portraits, then I expanded it to 60, and then finally decided 100 would have to be my cutoff point. A collection must have limits, or else it just becomes a mania.

Things I barely noticed at first now excited me. I had passed by one poster several times with a series of fey blondes and, incongruously, David Bowie amongst them. Towards the end of the series I suddenly realized these images were essential to my documentation - a counterpoint to the overt masculinity of most of the other series, made even more prescient by the mysterious presence of David Bowie.

In some of the 'blondes' portraits, and also in other series, I became attuned to something else. I realized I could feel their suffering. Weird huh? Sometimes the pain was evident in the way they cut their hair to compensate for it. Other times it was more subtle, their face bowed down to hide the shame in their eyes, or a nervous smile that betrayed their fear of being ridiculed by the camera.

Is it possible to feel empathy for someone in a pen and ink portrait made from a photo of a faded photo taken maybe 25 years ago? And how is it that I feel so intimate with some and indifferent toward others?

Anyway I could go on about my many musings during the 10 days I spent making these works, traveling to barbershops in the mornings before work and then painting at home at my kitchen table until late at night. I enjoyed it a lot, but I was also glad to be released from it once the 100th portrait - my self-portrait - was finished.

I decided to wear a wig representing my favourite signature hairstyle to the opening. Nobody recognized me, or maybe they just felt uncomfortable talking to me while I was wearing it. So it was a weird night. As someone with a lifetime of bad hair, I’ve always thought that it didn't really count for much, that I don’t judge people by their hair, and I’m not judged by my hair either. But maybe I’m wrong about that.