Black girls and women within the African continent and those of African descent across the globe are full of styles tips when it comes to braiding their hair. The collective and individual tales of endurance are common ground wherever they are located. While the process itself can be tedious, the end result is often showcased with pride.
Black women through generations have endured for hours on end in salon chairs, or on living room floors, having their hair ‘tugged and styled’, woven to form the perfect braid. According to research African cornrows/braids dates back to 3500 BCE. The style of cornrow/braid worn varied in complexity and often identified a person’s kinship, age, ethnicity, and even religion. Centuries later, it is still evolving.
Shani Crowe is an American photographer who has taken that long-standing tradition and spun it into “Braids,” an art show on display at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn, New York. In reports, Ms. Crowe said , “I wanted to create images that portray black women in a way that would inspire them not to be necessarily pretty, which is what most beauty stuff is about, but to kind of embody that and more within themselves. Everything starts within you and how you feel about yourself. It’s just trying to glorify black women and make them imagine themselves beyond their wildest dreams.”
She conceived her art collection “Braids” when she was 12 years old. She described that the idea for her first art show was taken from her own experience, detailing how she honed the ability to braid her hair. Though her initial idea was to create various braid styles using rainbow-colored hair and wire, and then photograph them, it evolved, in a manner she believed would best express women’s experiences. In an online interview she said, “I spent a lot of time at my grandma’s house and my older cousins or aunts would braid my hair. Once I got a little older and my aunt couldn’t do the designs that I wanted in my hair, I started doing it myself. The styles that I would create on myself attracted a client base, some of which are still clients of mine to this day.” Now, 15 years later, her idea has come to fruition with the help of ‘3Arts’, a non-profit organization.
Crowe’s show ‘Braids’ features black-and-white images of black women with intricate braids. She handpicked the models, took and edited the photographs, and braided all of the hair. The braid that took longest to complete required 12 hours of work over the course of two days.
Similarly, the ‘Salooni’ multi-disciplinary art project explores beauty from the black perspective. It too is a series of photographs representing different hairstyles through the past, present and future, established by four close friends – Kampire Bahana, Darlyne Komukama, Aida Nambi and Gloria Wavamunno. It was first shown at the La Ba festival in Kampala, Uganda, presented as a hairdresser’s salon art piece.
Aware of how black women’s hair can be politicised, the project began with a call from Chale Wote Street Art Festival 2016 in Jamestown, Ghana, themed Spirit Robot. In the call that was put out for artists to participate, Spirit Robot was described as ‘a sacred current that decodes worldly systems of racism, capitalism, alienation and subjection’. The festival aimed to construct a present where the mechanical constraints (robot) that people of African descent deal with every day are reclaimed and decoded through a collective creative process (spirit).
‘Salooni’ co-creator, Kampire saw the call, gained interest and reportedly said, “I immediately began thinking about black women’s hair practices and the way in which they have been passed on from generation to generation, despite the disruptions of slavery, colonialism, capitalism – as ways of being and survival for black women.”
While dialoguing with friends, the Salooni Project took shape. They shared ruminations about the joy of sharing similar experiences, even though they grew up in different areas. From that familiar circle they figured out how to express their experiences with other women. They would recapture this past and use the lessons and strategies that had been passed down to them to imagine a new future.
Darlyne whose hair is in locs said, “My philosophy on hair is the same for all life, people should be allowed to do what they want.” Aida, who maintains short hair, sports a taper fade haircut with cut lines as design says, “As black women, choice isn’t always an option for our hair. We wear it down because the afro is ‘not official enough’ for the office and we pull and stretch it to obey different commands and fit into an array of boxes. We subject it to heat, and we keep it in weaves.” They recall being taught that natural hair was ugly or unacceptable or had to be hidden, and in their way, want to pass on a different message to idyllic future black girls.
The Salooni Project aims to remind black women that these are ways in which ‘we’ survive. “Our mothers taught us which styles worked when, as their mothers before had done. So, for instance, we know if you braid it the night before, it is easier to comb in the morning. These were lessons and guides on how to survive the world, in black women’s hairstyles. ”
– With contributions from “Braids” by Shani Crowe and Black Feminism Forum.