A collector’s perspective

Georgina Jaffee

The conversations I have had with artists and gallerists have enabled a deep and inspiring appreciation of the works gathered here.

Hair can be seen as a ‘physical form of oral history’, as the Museum of Modern Art recently posted on Instagram. However, there are a mulitiplicity of competing interpretations about how hair matters. This website aims to encourage artists, curators, writers and public intellectuals to engage and participate with the collection, to spark debate ensuring that there is a diversity of voices and experiences recorded.

The artworks have been collected from far and wide; from art fairs such as 1.54 and Investec Cape Town Art Fair, Frieze in London and from art collectives such as Greatmore Studios in Cape Town and Gasworks in London. Artists represented here are based in the United States, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, Holland, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Ghana, Namibia, South Africa and Chile.

Hair has always mattered to me. Having my own frizzy hair and keeping it long, it was always a self-identifier, with people often commenting on and recognising me through it.  My father would tell me to brush it, tie it up and control it. Walking the streets of Woodstock in Cape Town, with my frizz blowing in the wind, a young man with wild hair also being battered uncontrollably in the gale, called out to me in recognition of something shared.

Visiting holocaust memorials as a younger person, I shared in the horror of the shaven victims, and the Nazis’ use of their hair for industry, books, lampshades and textiles. Danilo Kis, a Hungarian writer, in a short story titled  ‘The Hair’ (1955), describes a woman with copper hair on her way to the death camps:

And now they were going to wrest from her that one treasure, the copper and living gold by which she could still tell herself apart from these other women. It was the only feature that let her remember her name, which was been crowded out of her mind by a numbe … (S)he was proud of her tresses and Henri (her lover) had told her he loved her precisely because of her hair and that without it she felt she would not be herself and he wouldn’t be able to reconise her … She heard the slicing of the sissors, stiff and painful, as if they were cutting into living flesh. Two bunches of red hair fell into her lap from the barber’s hand ahd she felt as if her hands had been amputated … Then the man ran the electric shave across her head and hair poured into her lap like blood from her throat like fallen withered leaves…..

I became aware of the use of hair colour, type and curl to entrench apartheid-era racial categories. More recently, I have learnt from debates about the politics of hair and conflicts over hair styles at schools, hair products and the appropriation of hair styles. A hair category table found in a University of Stellenbosch collection was brought to my attention by a friend and well-known South African sociologist Gerhard Maré. Made up of different hair types, this was used to categorise people according to their race in the apartheid era. The David Goldblatt piece Baby with childminders in Alexandra Street park, Hillbrow Johannesburg was taken during the apartheid era. Here the childminders who are only allowed to sit on the bench because they are looking after a white child have also to cover their head with a “doek” (scarf) to control it and to make them ‘presentable’ for work. Hidden hair here is symbolic of their subjugation and lack of democratic rights.

A wide range of artistic practices are represented in this collection. These include biographical (Gbadebo) and historical (Anyaeji) references; hair styles (Ojeikere); spiritual and ritual invocations (Firmino, Msezane, Hamman, Bongoy, Mekondjo, Noah, Agbodjelou); abstract inspirations (Anyaeji); the use of hair cutting (Gbadebo); hair wrapping and hiding behind it  (Mzebenzi, Muholi ); intimate playfulness (Muholi, Karama); and colouring and architectural adornment (Ojeikere, Braithwaite, Steyn). In some pieces there is a deep artistic immersion in the pure fibre matrix (Barnor, Clarke); in others the referencing of hair styles, crafting of hair and exploration of its materiality inspires other media such as pottery, weaving and tapestry  (Anyaeji, Poswa, Paintsil, Gluckman, Dominguez, Ogunbiyi).

As a craft and an art form, hair has endless possibilities; from weaves, braids, wefts, ringlets, knots, plaits and wigs (Petit-Frere) and keeping it natural (Braithwaite). Hair has symbolic value too – for some keeping it natural (Barnor, Braithwaite, Drum imagery) is a means of restoring dignity and embracing one’s true identity.

St Clair Detrick Jules notes that ‘braids originated in Africa 3 500 years ago … they have been used to indicate social status, religion, marital status and other identity markers … braides are reflective or our culture … they are our history and our connection to our heritage’ (quoted in Priya Elan’s critique of white women models with braids, Guardian, 28 September 2021).

Similarly, as far back as the 17th century in England, hair was used to make lace-bands worn as love tokens or as momentos of dead relatives. A hair band in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London looks like a piece of lace with imagery of flowers, birds and animals delicately woven with the finest of blonde hair. The work in this collection of Angele Su from Hong Kong uses hair to embroider (in a similar way to the 17th century love band) by subverting the traditional notion of sewing by women and remaking it into a form of protest and reference to the psychological impact of recent social upheaval and protest actions.

Hair styles can also be periodised historically. They have been part of sacred rituals protest and rebellion, a tool of expression or suppression of the self, gender identity and status (Athi-Patra Ruga,Magadlela, Cohen).

Hair occupies the liminal space between the body and nature, identity and immortality. Adebunmi Gbadebo uses hair off-cuts from barbershops, repurposing hair to reference her slave-history. She is acutely aware of the DNA being part of the ancestral chain. Hair forms the connection between the body and human history, and DNA tracing allows for tracing and identification.

Hair is also part of the history of fashion and commerce. Mde CJ Walker became the first black female millionaire through manufacturing hair products in the 1890s (Sonya Clarke image using hair to depict the portrait). The modern billion dollar hair trade extends from China to Nigeria and North London and there is a proliferation of salons selling a range hair items from wigs to braids in many countries.

The collection also recognises the economic role and process of hair-dressing salons and the street and domestic culture surrounding them (Mudariki, Clarke, Mulunga, Manavhela, Ndlovu). Hair salons in western countries  are now upskilling to accommodate the requirements of many different hair types and styles, recognising the diversity of the communities around them and their hair preferences.

Hank Willis Thomas uses hair very conceptually in his layered image in this collection. A women is being dragged away by her hair into a new age of consumerism where sexism and violence against women persist through images. He is also commenting on advertising aimed at white women, white female beauty and gender ideals despite the fact that women are more liberated in the work place they are still “dragged” into submission.

This collection was put together with the help of artists, gallerists, curators, advisor and friend Mary Corrigall, and website developer Zach Viljoen. It has been a stimulating journey that I was keen to share on a public platform.

If Hair Matters inspires conversations, interpretations and debates which add depth to discussion about the history and use of hair imagery, it will have served its purpose well. •