Good hair means curls and waves (no). Bad Hair means you look like a slave (no). At the turn of the century it’s time for us to redefine who we be. You can shave it off like a South African beauty, or get in on lock like Bob Marley. You can rock it straight like Oprah Winfrey. If it’s not what’s on your head, it’s what’s underneath and say…I am not my hair. I am not this skin. I am not your expectations, no. I am not my hair. I am not this skin. I am the soul that lives within.” – India Arie.
Ten years ago India Arie expressed her hair journey in the 2006 Grammy nominated “I Am Not My Hair.” From her various styles to the ridicule she received for how she chose to rock her hair, the hit song expressed the sentiment of so many women of color. We are more than the locks adorned on our heads, however, our crown of glory catches the attention of others more so than any other cultural group. And understandably so. For centuries women of color have been creative in their technique and expression in the hair care arena. In some cases it has been from vanity; in others, necessity.
We can look over the course of history and see various styles that were born out of personal creativity or needs of the time. For example the ancient Egyptians pioneered the timeless hairstyle of the bob. Their pride in self-appearance greatly contributed to the beauty industry – from wigs, to cosmetics, to hairstyles and even hair color. (They were ever so resourceful, using the hair off their bodies to make wigs and henna to dye it.) Likewise, across Africa, particular tribes could be identified based on their hairstyles.
Hair braiding traditionally has been part of the African American culture. Ganda braids that are ever so fashionable today, date back to African tribes. Due to climate, braids and cornrows became customary for African people looking for ways to manage their hair. Nowadays, hair braiding provides protection from heat and chemicals and is done for the convenience it offers. The Bulu tribe in West Africa is known for wearing Bantu knots or what some term mini buns. Some African American women choose to wear their hair in these same Bantu knots for style or to achieve a curly look.
Regardless the style or technique, the craft of braiding continues to be part of the present day culture with its intricacy and creativity. The art of hair is a platform for personal expression and the versatility of hair provides a canvas for creative expression. Whether that expression is an updo, straight, curly, permed, natural, braided, locked, beaded or a combination.
The Taubman Museum of Art seems to agree as it will present Follicular: The Hair Stories of Sonya Clark, a major mid-career exhibition featuring the work of African-American multimedia artist Sonya Clark. The exhibit runs from Oct. 1through May14, offering visitors the opportunity to see the intricate history of African American hair presented through objects and performances. Throughout her career, Clark’s work has often featured hair and combs in the place of more traditional fibers and art-making materials. She uses them to speak meaningfully about cultural heritage, gender, beauty standards, race and identity.
Amy Moorefield, Deputy Director of Exhibitions and Collections, says the Museum wants to be more inclusive in diversity, people and materials. The museum wants to project “more of a true reflection of our community,” she adds. “It is critically important for our museum. The strength of the Taubman is that we present new work that focuses on global issues in the arts. Providing opportunities for our visitors to see art work being created ‘outside of the box’ using unexpected materials.”
Clark explores hair through African American lenses. Her work is deeply connected with ancestry in America. The work is all about story-telling, and Clark says stories have a lot to do with the adornment. “Hairdressers are my heroes,” says Clark. “The poetry and politics of black hair care specialists are central to my work. Rooted in a rich legacy, their hands embody an ability to map a head with a comb and manipulate the fiber we grow into complex form.”
Greg Addison of Hair Attitudes in Salem, is an exhibition sponsor. As a stylist for the past 28 years, Addison says “hairstyles are just like fashion, they come and go. They just come back with a different flair. You see some curls and some spikes. In today’s time you see a mixture of all eras.” Clark has worked with a series of hairstylists using her own head as the canvas. Those who visit this unique exhibit will find her photography, sculptures and site captivating. She has taken a 1970s beauty salon chair and embellished it with beads and other intricate materials. This work of art also will be used during a live performance featuring Sonya Clark on Oct. 8.
The journey of hair has had a cultural impact. Brandon Hunt, hair stylist and owner of The B Hunt Effect Salon in Roanoke, has been doing hair since he was 11. In his 16 years as a stylist, Hunt says a lot has changed from equipment to technique. “I love black hair,” Hunt says, “because it is the only kind of hair that can be manipulated however you want. Our texture is unique. We can make it look wavy or straight. Blow it out. Do anything we want with it. Other cultures cannot achieve the same looks based on their texture.”
For centuries African American women have been the most creative with their hair styles. This creativity and complexity of hair often has piqued the interest of other cultures and sparked their curiosity. On a personal note I can recall when I was a child getting a straightening relaxer. When I returned to school the next day my white classmates were in awe of the smooth and silky nature of my hair. (Years later I now realize, along with thousands of other African American women, the dangers of such chemicals.) Nonetheless, those classmates were captivated with the new texture I chemically achieved and would put their fingers through my hair because it looked and felt so silky. Back then I did not understand, but now I realize that they were amazed at how I was able to transform my hair: from braids one day to hair that looked more like theirs the next. As a woman of color I took for granted that doing my hair everyday was more than just grooming myself and looking presentable, but truly a reflection of my personality. Black hair is in fact diverse. To date, I look and treat my hair much differently than growing up. For five years I have chosen not to put any chemicals in my hair and the result has given me stronger, longer and healthier, naturally curly hair. And I am not alone. More and more women of color have decided to go natural, which means not adding any chemicals to their hair.
“This natural fad we are going through reminds me of the 70s my black is beautiful movement,” says Hunt. “We have a million different techniques we can use to rock our natural hair and those looks are now so stylish. I am noticing my clientele is transitioning into healthy hair - taking better care of their hair. Before no one was too concerned with the condition of the hair. Our job as a stylist is to maintain the health of our clients’ hair.” When he first started doing hair most of his clients wanted little to no maintenance: up-dos, braided styles, quick weaves. Now clients are willing to do the extra work because a lot of them are natural and are more concerned about the health of their hair. Hunt, along with several other stylists, believe that Chris Rock’s documentary, “Good Hair Bad Hair,” opened the eyes of many women (and men) to be more cognizant of what they are putting on their hair.
Stylist Dawn Roberts of Fusion Salon and Day Spa, also in Salem, agrees. In her 15 years in the business, she has noticed her clients’ willingness to embrace hair as it is, without chemical manipulations. At first she thought going “natural” was a fad, just to do something different that went against the norm of black culture. She quickly discovered that going natural was simply a healthy option. “What started as a fad has moved into a movement of self-love,” ssays Roberts. “The majority of my clients are natural; half of them were already natural and the others have transitioned. As a stylist, my overall goal is to promote healthy hair.”
This movement in celebrating natural hair has been embraced beyond the African American culture. It appears that domestically and internationally, the natural state of African American hair is now trendy and is becoming more accepted. Many major retailers feature the “look” in their marketing campaigns, including Target, Old Navy and H&M.
Roberts says: “The fashion industry is beginning to feel it’s (natural hair) beautiful. They accept that it is just as beautiful curly and in some cases wild, just as much if it was silky straight. Good hair and bad hair is changing for black women. A lot of women grew up thinking their natural hair was bad. Now they are embracing their natural hair as good even though the texture is different.”
Natural hair or otherwise, the creativity and evolution of Black hair has been anything but basic. The ability to transform your hair from one look to another always has been the envy of many and admired by most. There is definite pride in how a black woman rocks her hair. Both Hunt and Roberts consider their profession an art since “every client is an opportunity to create, to design,” says Roberts, adding “it is how I express myself. I didn’t feel like an artist until I started doing hair.”
Today we see not just the emergence of natural hair, but embrace its history and symbolism. That symbolism is to simply reveal “the soul that lives within.”