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Review: The Art of Black Hair at New Art Exchange

1 March 17 words: Shannon Challis-Smith

NAE looks at the various ways in which black people style and celebrate their hair in the gallery's latest exhibition... 

Displayed within the stairway of The New Art Exchange, the viewer travels up a winding path while engaging with the show, the shape of the route mirroring a strand of hair itself. The photographic portraits, taken by Bartosz Kali, convey an individual narrative. Every subject varies in age, style and gender – some look directly into the camera, some away from it. Kali’s consistent style really holds the series together as a successful portrayal of a collective of emotions.

The range of facial expressions captured suggests that they are the immediate result of a discussion regarding their hair. While some appear to pose confidently, proudly flaunting their style of hair, others don’t seem as comfortable in their attitude.

For instance, one pairing of photographs consists of two side profiles that face each other. The woman on the left of the duo shows off the patterns of her braids on the side of her head, smiling and appearing content. However, the woman in the opposite photograph has a blank expression; her impassiveness communicates less of a positive emotion. The juxtaposition of these portraits creates a significant contrast between the possible different personal opinions of their own hair and their experiences of it.

A trio of images displayed on another wall convey three possibly very different responses to their photo shoot. One subject looks down, with her hand upon her face, suggesting an uncomfortable disposition. The central shot is of the back of the subject’s head, and the third of a woman wearing a bright red hat and smiling. All have short hair, and have sat for their photograph. Their levels of receptivity, however, appear to differ significantly, sparking questions regarding why some people’s confidence regarding their hair is considerably less than others.

Some of these queries are answered in the videography that is part of the exhibition. The viewer is invited to watch and listen to interviewees, who discuss their personal hair-related experiences. They talk of how they have to tailor techniques to adapt them to their hair type, and how they are able to utilise this to create their unique styles. The film additionally features subjects talking of disadvantageous elements of their hair, as well as prejudices they have had to confront as a result of it being different to their peers.

The show also exhibits a collection of hair-related items, such as lotions, shampoos and oils. The products vary from early twentieth century to more modern treatments, and coincide with the style components that are also presented, including hair clips, head scarfs and accessories. The items contribute a colourful, additional nostalgic medium to the show over previous hair trends and how people have used them to complement fashion styles in different eras.

Adjoining with the numerous insightful elements of the exhibition, the audience is given the option to participate. One wall is lined with hair grips, from which hangs comments from attendees. They aren’t just about the show, but also the viewer’s’ own opinions and experiences with their hair and how they have embraced it to become confident. This element of the show really allows for everybody to appreciate the content’s significance and adapt it to their own hair, regardless of your race or background.

Although the majority of The Art of Black Hair relates to hair type, its message translate to offer an accessible insight into the vulnerabilities and strengths that are dealt with due to race. Everyone should take the opportunity to go along and add their own contribution.

The Art of Black Hair, New Art Exchange, runs until Sunday 19 March 2017.

New Art Exchange website 





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