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In my recent work, I have been investigating the ways in which hair can help to form our identities, socially, culturally, and in particular, racially. Primarily, I am concerned with the continued suppression of African hair in favour of a “whiter” look achieved through the use of weaves, wigs, extensions and straightening techniques. After a brief moment in the ’60’s and 70’s when the Afro came to symbolize pride in natural black hair characteristics, the “whitening” of our hairstyles has come back full-force, as evidenced by the straight (and sometimes even blonde) styles worn by black women in the public eye, from Michelle Obama to Beyoncé.
Having a background in jewellery, my first impulse was to use Victorian hair jewellery as a starting point for experimenting with hair as a craft medium. I made several hair brooches, using synthetic hair extensions (a product made specifically for women of African descent) to see how the fibres could be woven and braided into jewellery. The work then really came alive when I “performed” it, wearing the brooches with matching wigs. By having myself photographed in slightly silly and awkward poses, I am poking fun at contemporary beauty practices, while also playing with perceptions of race and identity.
Working with jewellery, and also experimenting with lace-making as a possible method of weaving hair, I began to think about European symbols of wealth and power, and how they could be used to present African hair as something powerful and desirable. Hence, I have made a top hat out of “African”braids (although the hair is actually synthetic). I made dozens of tiny braids, frizzed their ends, sewed them onto a semi-rigid fabric, and constructed the hat using millinery wire for extra support. I then lined the inside with dark brown satin, referencing African skin. Although the lining will likely not be seen when the hat is displayed, it was important to me to create something that was finely crafted and luxurious.
I am continuing my work with hair as a craft medium, and have plans to make a Victorian mourning dress out of braids, and some more intricate jewellery pieces, eventually incorporating some real hair into my work. I am interested in the Victorian period because if its association with mourning (I feel a profound sadness when I think of the history of African people on North American soil), and also because it was a time of great cross-cultural exchange, and has had such a lasting effect on the West’s ideas about racial, societal, and gender stereotypes.