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Untangling the Politics of Black Hair: Bea Udeh on Black Hair

19 November 14 words: Bea Udeh
photos: J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere (Courtesy of Gallery Magnin-A, Paris)

Nottingham’s art galleries are obsessed with hair at the moment, and why on earth not? From straight to frizzy, soft curls to tight spirals, black to blonde, short to long, our hair is shaped and styled as a way to express ourselves. With the upcoming discussion at New Art Exchange, Untangling the Politics of Black Hair, Nottingham Playhouse curator and Mouthy Poet Bea Udeh talks Afro hair...

It's time for my irregular hair session at my barbers in Hyson Green. Not that I am going to have an irregular cut, more that I like to plan my hair appointments on an impromptu basis. It is a lovely October day and my Ultimate Barber seats me in the chair and asks whether I've had the opportunity to visit the exhibition round the corner. My eyebrow is raised because my barber always surprises me; apart from his political and community nouse, it’s funny how much cultural activity he seeks across Nottingham.

When my Ultimate Barber speaks, I tend to pay heed. So I made some time to visit the New Art Exchange and was blown away by a photographic collection from the recently deceased J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere. Walking around the main gallery brought me up close to the photograph of the 'Pineapple,' a threaded hairstyle that took me back to being a South London youngster bopping to school in the seventies. My mum would use a wooden comb with three widely spaced teeth, all sharpened to a fine point to divide my hair into sections, so that it resembled the outside surface of a pineapple. Each section would be wrapped with black thread from scalp to tip until it resembled a pipe cleaner. Each 'pipe' would then be sculpted into a variety of beautiful architectural designs as depicted in this exhibition.

Today, the trend to wrap hair extends to all hair types from Caucasian hair category one through to Afro hair category four. It’s achieved by wrapping one or a few sections with brightly coloured embroidery-type thread. It was wonderful to see a variety of African and Caribbean hair-stylists and dressers alongside their Caucasian counterparts trying out classic and contemporary styles on BBC 3's third series of Hair earlier this year.

Allowing somebody to touch and handle your hair is quite an intimate thing, in my opinion. For some of us, our hair is a spiritual connection to ourselves. In some cultures and religions, the grooming, cutting and shaping of our hair is ruled by ritualistic traditions. Perhaps that gives us a clue as to why we feel good during and after a visit to a hairstylist. For women, it offers the opportunity to glorify one's looks, to treat yourself and succumb to pampering. For men, the barbers is a space to discuss with other men, and the occasional female, the politics of the day.

The politics of hair is a "long ting". In a nutshell, it is about control of power and gender, where the obsession with natural versus "unnatural" Afro styles provokes Marmite-like judgements which can affect your friendship groups, career and even your choice of life partner. While Ojeikere's exhibition is steeped in a discourse about the traditions of preparing for courtship or big celebrations, we seem to be obsessed with "Has she or hasn't she?" The question about whether a person has got their own head of hair or has borrowed a little or processed a little. We’re talking Dianne Abbott compared to Beyoncé, where people in the public eye have fed the media hunger for the perfect look by giving credence to the belief that to get far in one's career, you need a certain look. This is usually achieved by processing the natural hair shafts with a relaxer or adding volume or length by way of extensions. You do not get female news correspondents with Pam Grier-esque afros.

From the Cleopatra to the 1973 film Cleopatra Jones starring Tamara Dobson; from Naomi Campbell's weave resting on her over-processed natural hair, to Lupita Nyong'o's love of braiding, our choice of hairstyle is politically powerful. In part, this is due to women claiming their rights in recent years to wear natural Afro styles with confidence, as a way to express themselves without the fear of being described using derogatory language. It’s also due to the transatlantic slave trade and the legacy of disassociation that came with emancipation. Or maybe it is just a financial ploy to encourage the sale of more hair products to an increasingly beauty-conscious society. These will no doubt be some of the strands discussed at the Untangling the Politics of Black Hair panel with author and journalist Hannah Pool. I won't forget to take my hot comb.

For many women, hair comes before fashion. Hair is fashion. Fashion complements hair. You will find some women sporting headscarves to hide a messy hairdo - Hattie McDonald is famous for her headscarf in Gone With the Wind. Okeire's exhibition also looks at the fashionable starched silk or cotton headscarves known as gele, worn by Nigerian women to complement special going-out outfits. The art of this particular head gear is exactly that - art. Twisted, tucked and pinned into ornate and often precise shapes, you will find the process less onerous than wearing a lace-up corset, but the end result is just as stunning. For me, wearing a gele requires commitment to be as convincing as Scandal actress, Kerry Washington, who wore a gele to her wedding last year.

I will definitely visit again to experience the other elements of this exhibition, including a host of talks, discussions and pop-up salon experiences. That's right. Next to the main gallery is a mini gallery space which has been converted into an exhibition-cum-hairstylist-centre. Ben Harriot has filled the walls with a beautiful photographic take on his contemporary experience of being shorn at a barbers; from the talk they talk to the hair they barb. There is a level of story I believe he has more to reveal about his journey into the barber shop. This exhibition follows hot on the collaborative exhibition from Syson Gallery and Nottingham Contemporary in September with the Open Barbers pop-up salon.

More hair art will be revealed in November when Rachel Young takes up the mantle with a live art experiment, Crowns of Confidence in the same pop-up space. The Hairstyles exhibition is like a good wedding with plenty to celebrate, including an interactive area where children and adults can create their own weave pieces to add as a collage to a wall. A selection of books on offer serve as a great resource for furnishing one's knowledge on all things on African and Caribbean hair too. On reflection, I might grow my hair longer than a grade two next year, just so I can sport some China Bumps or a Pineapple style again. But, then again, I might wait until my hairstyle becomes more widely hip among women who first seek approval from the media.

J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere: Hairstyles and Headdresses runs until Sunday 11 January 2015. Untangling the Politics of Black Hair, 12-2pm, free, Saturday 22 November 2014. Crowns of Confidence by Rachel Young and Richard Hougez, Exhibition Launch 3.30pm-5pm, Saturday 22 November 2014. New Art Exchange, Gregory Boulevard, NG7 6BE

New Art Exchange website

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