By Dr. Tameka Ellington, Speaker, Author, and Cocurator of “TEXTURES: the history and art of Black hair”
People of African descent have hair that is like no other race of people. It is the number one racial identifier, skin tone being the second. Afro or Black hair grows out of the head like a halo and can be molded, braided, twisted, and wrapped into various shapes such as those of the West African Fulani tribe or the Mangbetu tribe of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The textural distinction of Black hair has been negatively othered as a result of colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade.
Despite more than 400 years of suffering through racial and hair discrimination and the need to assimilate to society’s dominant beauty ideas, which required that Black people straighten their hair, many Black people have found ways to love themselves and their hair. During the 1960s and 1970s’ Black Is Beautiful movement, natural hair was styled in ways that evoked the attention of fashion and popular culture, leading to hairstyle appropriation among non-Blacks, such as singer Barbara Streisand and actress Bo Derek. However, Black hair discrimination persisted. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was no longer fashionable to wear natural Black hair styles, and they soon faded away, until their reemergence in the 2000s. Today, Black hair is this sometimes-in and other-times-out trendy icon that can be seen in urban streets across the globe. Thanks to the popularity of street wear, high fashion has become accessible to poor Blacks. Thus, hairstyles have proceeded to become more creative with the essence of a mix between modern and traditional flair.
In the Kent State University exhibition that I cocurated with Dr. Joseph Underwood entitled TEXTURES: the history and art of Black hair, traditional styling techniques are evident in the artifacts, as well as modern ways of hairstyling. West African threading, for example, is achieved by sectioning the hair into small or large boxes, applying oil and/or pomade, then wrapping each box section with thin wire creating a long branch-like object pointing out the head that can be manipulated into any shape the wearer desires. As featured in TEXTURES, Joseph Eze’s Stella Pomade is a great example of traditional meeting modern design in the image portraying classic Nigerian hair threading paired with a modern Louis Vuitton blazer and ascot. This hairstyle, dating back hundreds of years, was nearly lost. But it has been revived, thanks to creatives such as The New Black Vanguard’s Jamal Nxedlana and his fashion-forward piece entitled Johannesburg, where the model is rocking a green-threaded hairstyle arranged into wild spirals!
Braided hairstyles have a long history in the Black culture. According to legend, the first braids were done on the head of the goddess Isis as she mourned at the well due to the loss of her husband. Nearby maidens saw that she was grieving and came to comfort her, and in doing so, they braided her hair. The hairstyle referred to as cornrows in the United States, or canerows in the Caribbean, dates back to as early as 550 BC, to ancient Nok artifacts depicting men wearing the traditional hairstyle. Braided from the Roots by Lebohang Motaung, showcased in TEXTURES, features an incredible braided hairstyle that is parted into skinny rows woven tightly to the canvas. The crown of the illustrated head is structured into a braided cone shape, very reminiscent of traditional Nigerian hairstyles. Shani Crowe, celebrity braiding artist, was also inspired by this shape in her work entitled Shakere, which presents a cowrie-shelled cone affixed on top of the head of a beautiful Black woman. The New Black Vanguard’s Sarah, Lagos, Nigeria by Namsa Leuba depicts a woman with trendy yellow-and-black cornrowed hair. These pieces are marvelous examples of how modern fashion and traditional elements such as braids and Ankara fabrics become amalgamated to create a unique ensemble of color, shape, and line.
Color, shape, and line are integral parts to all good design, including the design of hair ornaments. For centuries, Black hair has been adorned with gold, silver, and other trinkets such as beads and cowrie shells to create hairstyles that have been a representation of status, personality, and flair. I remember being a little girl and my mother styling my hair in small ponytails all over my head. At the end of each ponytail, she affixed a plastic adornment — a barrette. These barrettes were created by way of a molded die cut into the shape of flowers, bows, birds, and other animals. I remember swinging my head side to side just so that I could feel the barrettes graze against my shoulders. Althea Murphy-Price’s barrettes number 2, shown in the TEXTURES exhibition, brings a sense of nostalgia that only little girls are privileged to. The pinks, blues, oranges, and sea greens bring back memories of matching rompers and skirts swinging in the wind. The New Black Vanguard’s Adeline in Barrettes by Micaiah Carter is a photograph that captures the innovation of French songstress Adeline and how she refreshes an adornment meant for little children and gives it a sophisticated, high-fashion edge.
Works by Quil Lemons and Devan Shimoyama depict a part of Black culture that is often not discussed. Black queerness continues to create proverbial black sheep throughout communities across the world. The audacious music of Lil Nas X helps to bring forward a topic that continues to be swept under the rug and locked in the closet. New York, from Glitter Boy, a photography series by The New Black Vanguard’s Lemons, and Shimoyama’s Elijah, in TEXTURES, both use sparkle and hues of pink as a way to represent the essence of femininity in queer male figures. Shimoyama’s series called Crybaby depicts men and boys in a barbershop embellished with crystal teardrops representing the pain that is often felt by queer males going into hypermasculine barbershop spaces. While a barbershop is an environment where most heterosexual Black men commune and connect with their community, queer men have an obverse experience. Both artists’ works question society’s idea of what Black masculinity is supposed to be.
From threading to braids, barrettes, and sparkles of “queerful” joy, Black hair in and of itself is an art form, an art form that has been simultaneously celebrated and despised. It continues to be the object of many artists’ inspiration because of its connection to cultural struggle and self-acceptance, fashion, and controversy. Black hair will remain the muse of future artists to come. Several years from now, you will see that my prophesy was right. Black hair never dies!