Words and Photos by Willem van den Heever

All images shot on 120 film Kodak Portra400

Last Days of Riviera Salon

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On an early grey wet and gloomy Friday morning I walk through Thibault square in search of Riviera Salon. With the weather hanging heavy and dark over the city and over myself, I feel a bitter weariness pulling at me and I know the story I’m most likely about to hear is certainly not going to be much lighter either.

Through the dark empty square with only a few blue collar workers hastily on their way to work, I easily spot the salon illuminating the brick paved curb in front of the building with the radiance of the empty fluorescent-lit barber shop seeping out. I pause and look at the sign above the door to make sure I’m at the right place and lower my tired eyes to peek inside through the see-through glass doors. Inside Lorenzo Bonavita sits lonesome and still with spectacles hanging low on weary eyes, staring at the pages of the morning paper.

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Lorenzo, who turned 77 this month, came from Sisaly, Italy to South Africa as a young man of 21 and professional barber in the late 60’s. For the past 56 years he’s been cutting hair and trimming beards at Tiviera Salon.

“Coming from Italy, you take pride in what you do. As a barber, you start young, it takes a long time to perfect the craft and you learn slow, but good. It’s all about precision. I started as a young schoolboy with my uncle, he was a barber as well.”

“So you learned from your uncle? He was the one who trained you?” I ask.

Lorenzo starts laughing, “Oh no, I didn’t learn much from him.”

The conversation quickly takes a somber turn as the quiet desolation of the perfectly 60’s style clean and neat - without a hair on the floor - salon brings up the question of the ever dreadful Covid-19 pandemic. Lorenzo, like so many others, a victim not of the virus, but of the lockdown and the government’s reaction to the virus.

“The problem is, the system was made 100 years ago and it’s not working anymore. It must change, it will change, and this virus will change it. So it’s not all bad. I believe this is something that was meant to happen, despite our pain and hardship now,” Lorenzo says, breaking the brooding silence and voicing his concerning thoughts.

“The ones on the top, they don’t care about me and you and the guys outside on the street, they only care about themselves and now everybody is starting to see that. It’s white collar crime, where is the justice? But this virus will change everything. It will change our thinking, and the world must change. The big guys who are controlling the world are on the loosing path and people are not stupid anymore,” he continues with wet serious eyes.

            When questioning him about why he decided to become a professional barber he looks down for a moment, takes off his glasses, folds them neatly, tucks them away in his chest pocket and looks up to me and say, “We are all here to serve somebody, we are not here just for ourselves. I want to be of service for people, even if it is something as simple as cutting hair.”

The topic naturally changes over to religion and spirituality, Lorenzo explains he is spiritual, but does not believe in the church anymore. “I still believe in people, because I believe in love. There is love in everybody. Nobody is without love. I’ve seen very bad people in my life, gangsters, Mafia people, they all had families they loved, which means they have love in them. Everything exists inside of God and God is love, so everything exists in love.”

Behind him against the wall, is a beautiful oil painting of horses running in a field. The painting has a lot of dark tones and colours to it with prominent light and shadows, leaning towards a baroque style. Lorenzo suddenly turns around, stares at the painting for a few seconds and then asks me if I like the painting.

“Yes, it was the first thing I noticed when I walked in. I think it’s beautiful,” I respond. He walks closer to the painting and uses his index finger to create a small triangular box in the bottom corner. He turns to me and says, “This is what we see, this is our perspective and we forget this little bit we see is not the full picture. All the dark parts and all the light parts are needed to make one big beautiful painting. We need both the dark and the light to create a beautiful picture, so the dark bad things we are seeing and experiencing now, means there is a beautiful painting in the making. In suffering, people are molded to become stronger, but the problem is we lose perspective and stare into the dark patch of the small corner.”

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            Due to the pandemic and the nationwide lockdown of the past few months enforced by the government, Lorenzo has no choice but to, after more than 56 years, permanently close the doors of Riviera Salon and end his legacy in Thibault Square. 30 November 2020 will mark the end to one of Cape Town’s oldest and most iconic barber shops. Lorenzon is not the only one in his family who lost his shop and business, both his kids also got retrenched as well.

“At least we’re all still healthy. And besides, I’m 77, it was a good run,” he says with a smile of optimism. 

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