Combing out (some) of the thematic tangles

Mary Corrigall

There were a number of artworks in Georgina Jaffee’s  collection that evinced latent connections to hair before it became a focus. It wasn’t until she acquired A no m'eba, ma na anoho mu eba (I am here, but I am not here) made in 2016 by the Nigerian artist Ifeoma U Anyaeji that the thematic possibilities this topic could present captured my attention. At first, our interest in this very tactile hanging work by  Anyaeji – not quite a sculpture, nor a textile work – resided in its visual appeal, its textural qualities and indeed her unique manipulation of the disused materials in which she united all manner of waste via a hair plaiting technique. In this way this multicoloured composition appears like hair, though from afar, operates as an ambiguous abstract creation we have come to associate with African expression. This hidden connection to the body and the narrative tied to it was intriguing.

Particularly for someone like myself, who through my academic and journalistic work have closely observed and commentated on forms of contemporary art in South Africa where sartorial expression has been used in performance and art, sculpture to upturn visual codes attached to racial and gender identities. Hair has played a role in this masquerade mode – embraced by a post-apartheid generation – but has rarely been the focus of a collection or a lens through which to further pry open the politics of gender and race. However, as hair is part of the body yet is able to be manipulated in ways that is subject to fashion and/or societal or cultural norms, it presents as the ideal vehicle through which to explore the intersection, and indeed friction, between what is determined by nature or culture.

Particularly interesting is that Anyaeji and other artists whose works are included in the collection that could be defined as abstract – such as Adebunmi Gbadebo, Galia Gluckman, Temitayo Ogunbiyi’s and Zizipho Poswa to some degree – have found ways of embedding a discourse relating to the body without depicting it in a figurative manner. This presents a substantial turning point in identity-driven art, which so often was trapped in the self-same visual cul-de-sac (the body) that it was challenging. Abstract works with ‘hair’ – provide such an interesting strand through which to explore identity – as it can be represented detached from the body – so far as this might be possible – allowing us to consider its politics and physicality in isolation, though ironically this exposes how deep its roots are connected to history, society. 

Hair presents a fascinating and rich point of departure to ponder not only on visual codes determining how we perceive race and gender but as the veritable roots of the politics of hair can be traced to Greek Mythology and traditions across the African continent, where hair similarly played a role in articulating status, it allows us to consider persistent aspects of the human condition.

Over time, as we pursued works that promised new ‘strands’ to the evolving discourse, it became clear based on the artworks we encountered that hair as either a medium or subject-matter for art was one taken up mostly by black female artists. Male artists, mostly photographers, whose work we encountered – James Barnor, Kwame Braithwaite, and J.D. Okhai Ojeikere – tended to represent women’s hairstyles.

This was not unexpected. Notions of beauty and the qualities that determine it burden many women’s relationship to their bodies. Given hair is the most malleable part and frames the face – the locus of individuality and personality – it is not surprising that hair is in of itself subject-matter for art. It’s malleability allows an individual the ability to conform to the norms or use it to upturn them or exploit it as a vehicle for expression. As such as with the manipulation of dress, hair can utilised as a ‘mask’ of sorts – that conceals a shifting or mercurial essence.

This was a recurring motif in some of the works in this collection, from Sethembile Msezane’s The Day Rhodes Fell (2015), where a ‘mask’ of hair obscures her face, permitting her to act as a witness to the events unfolding behind and around her. Similarly, in a performative piece documented via photographs, the artist Athi-Patra Ruga obscures his face and identity with an oversized Afro-wig outfit as he is depicted in the streets of a Swiss town and a farm scene where he embodies the ‘black’ sheep persona used in a right-wing advertising campaign in that country to warn of the perils of illegal immigrants.  In this series, Even I Exist In Embo: Jaundiced Tales Of Counterpenetration (2007), Ruga also places himself as a witness to events, a condition, but also is the sacrificial lamb – in order to highlight negative racial stereotyping he must embody an exaggerated expression of otherness, which hair seems to exemplify in Europe and elsewhere, where white supremacy dominates. 

In self-portraits by Zanele Muholi – Self (2005) – and  Thandiwe Msebenzi’s uBuhle buya nyamezelwa (2017) their hairdos become the only signifier of identity. In contrast to Ruga’s series, the artists’ appear naked – out of costume – yet their faces remain out of view. In this way their hair functions as a shield, a layer of protection from vulnerability, the pervasive gaze of the viewer.

Hair, of course, does not neutralise ‘the gaze’ as it is such a loaded part of the body. This makes it ideal as a ‘screen’ on which to reveal the viewer’s bias, whether gendered or racialised. 

Colonialism and slavery, which like apartheid relied on white supremacist notions, has cast black natural hair in a negative light as it is perceived not to conform to western notions of beauty. This emerges as a central theme in this collection, with artists presenting women engaged in the act of scrutinising the self – Cinthia Sifa Mulanga’s paintings best represent this – claiming attention or retreating from sight (as noted earlier) and the judgements a societal gaze might bring.

The Drum magazine covers naturally glorified the women on them – and indeed that this magazine existed and allowed black women in apartheid South Africa to grace covers and be admired is significant. James Barnor, who also shot covers for this South African publication while he was living in London, has noted in interviews that being marginalised as a black photographer in the UK was a challenge. For this reason seeing his work on a cover of a magazine presented a significant professional boost. Yet, academic texts pertaining to the representation of women in this magazine (not only on the covers but how they are portrayed elsewhere) reveal a persistent layer of patriarchy and a pressure to be ‘beautiful’ – which the magazine exemplifyies as an ‘urban’ look.  

White cover models and women at large have lived under this pervasive patriarchal shadow too. Hank Willis Thomas’s Come out of the Bone Age, darling... (1955/2015), which is appropriated from a 1950s advert depicts women’s ‘liberation’ as one directed (and commercially exploited) by men. The figure of the  blonde woman embodies this ‘ideal female’ persona and is so pervasive an almost mirror version of it is seen hanging in a township scene snapped by Graeme Williams.

For the blonde artist Marlene Steyn who depicts a likeness of herself in A Tall Atoll (2020) her hair might be depicted as her crowning glory, yet beneath this blonde layer – represented as thin veneer - is hidden mountain, a multitude, of ‘selves’. As her inner self is simply depicted as a duplication of her external self, there is a sense that it is impossible to get beyond her appearance in order to really ‘see her’.

As a white person working on a collection which has naturally led us to study art by predominantly black women has presented a challenge. As some of the essential issues have circled the impact of white patriarchal society it has been easy to ‘identify’ with the works. Yet we have had to be particularly sensitive to some of the intersectional differences by such a diverse range of artists from different countries where their lived experiences have been shaped by different circumstances we might never fully grasp. Yet this is what draws us to art as a vehicle of self-discovery and empathy.

We encountered many works by African American artists that very directly speak to the politics of hair and its relation to racism. In the US – “where hair straightening became a means of survival,” Afiya Mbilishaka observes in Textures: The History and art of Black Hair (2020: 31). In some states natural hairstyles were criminalised (Tharps 2020: 22).

African American artists are best able to speak to the difficult history in that country which has politicised black hair in ways that seem unprecedented elsewhere. That the US-based artist Sonja Clarke’s practice has more or less centred on engaging with hair from different perspectives substantiates this. She explores hairstyling as an artform that affords a kind of malleability but also creativity – as seen in the series – Hair Craft Project with Ingrid (2014)  - but also how it has led to the empowerment of black women who commercialised hair styling – articulated through her work Madam CJ Walker and Me (2013).  In the latter she depicts a likeness of the African American woman who built a million-dollar business through hair-styling products for black women. She does this with strands of her own hair. In this way Clarke entangles herself quite literally in this history of hair.

Hair as the route (or root) to reclaiming history recurs in a number of works in the collection. In Franck Kemkeng Noah’s Le Kounga au Vatican (2021) he presents a group of masked spirits haunting a Western citadel. Given this is part of an ongoing series – you sense that these ancestral figures or performers calling on their ancestors are summoning a colonial debt that has yet to be settled. As hair is both alive and dead (once hair follicles reach the surface the cells are dead) it functions as the ideal conduit between the living and the dead.

Renewed interest in elaborate African hairdos from ancient times marks Joanne Petit-Frère’s #1. Reclaiming the Crown (2017). Yet the archival images of intricate hair styles taken by the Nigerian photographer Ojeikere in the 70s serve as a reminder that in post-independent African countries at this time, hairstyles from the precolonial era were already celebrated. The history of hair is not linear – it curls in, on itself.

Young artists keen to trace their ancestral histories, such as Tuli Mekondjo in her work Kukulako… (2020) evokes precolonial life, specifically the cultural practices that the missionaries arriving in Namibia stamped out in their effort to establish Christianity. Significantly, she focuses on how this forced conversion involved the shaving of the Elende coiffures. It is not only the tribal identity of the women that is erased, but a language that carries cultural significance.

Erasing signifiers of identity through the shaving of the head becomes a weapon against prejudice for artist Tracy Rose in Span II (1997). A naked and shaven Rose is depicted in a glass vitrine, suggesting that while she has removed all bodily hair and items that overdetermine her identity as a so-called ‘coloured’ person as per the Apartheid era she remains ‘a specimen’.

In Discontinued Healing (2019) Teresa Kutala Firmino references the girls and women of the Mbalantu, who prepare their hair in different styles to reflect the different stages of their lives and the status this brings. As with Mekondjo she appears to be seeking out ways of recouperating histories and narratives through unearthing hairstyles. In this way hair becomes the physical and psychic medium through which artists are able to trace and reconnect with their ‘roots’ or identify the point at which those strands were ‘broken’. •

Mary Corrigall is an art consultant, researcher, and award-winning art journalist.