The long road of African hairstyles as a means of aesthetic, artistic and political expression:

Born on the African continent, the art of hairstyling has historical, aesthetic and symbolic importance. Passed down from generation to generation and from mother to daughter, plaits, braids and dreadlocks have existed since ancient times. Many African women, deeply attached to traditional values, have always taken care of their hair and developed highly sophisticated hairstyles with a unique know-how. Like scarification, African hairstyles identify gender, age, ethnic origin, status and personal taste. Scholars, missionaries, colonists and travellers were aware of the diversity and richness of African hairstyles from a very early stage. 

Showing ingenuity and creativity, Africans also used it as a means of liberation during the slave trade to escape their torturers. African hairstyles can also be found in modern art, in paintings advertising hairdressers’ and barbers’ kiosks, and in Afro-American fashion.

Considered one of today’s hottest beauty trends worldwide, African plaits are an age-old practice that has been brought back into fashion. For several years now, using the concept of sculptural hair, some very talented women artists have been taking control of their hair to create works of art that are as beautiful as they are rich in meaning. Through social networks, they are finally expressing themselves aesthetically, artistically and politically using their hair. 

Between the desire to restore women’s confidence, assert their identity or denounce certain societal issues (gender equality, abolition of excision, condemnation of acts of violence against women, support for the #Blacklivesmatter movement), beauty, art and Afro culture intermingle and never cease to surprise us, as the five artists below who have become benchmarks show us.

A pioneer of African photography, Nigerian photographer J.D. Okhai Ojeikere has been immortalising African hairstyles for 40 years, with the aim of preserving them by organising them according to theme, as in the Hairstyle series, which contains almost a thousand photographs. Every day, he systematically photographs the hairstyles of Nigerian women in the street, at the office or at parties, from the back, sometimes in profile and more rarely from the front. Over and above the aesthetic project, his work constitutes a unique heritage, at once anthropological, ethnographic and documentary, in a minimalist black and white style. “There is no question of copying or reproducing identically the hairstyles of our grandmothers, who already found those of their own grandmothers quite “old-fashioned”. Each generation has its own inspiration. I wanted to photograph them to keep them in my memory“, he says.

Young Ivorian designer Laetitia Ky is bursting with imagination, and every week she takes up the challenge of surprising her millions of followers on Instagram and TikTok by modelling her frizzy hair with the bare minimum. She turns her hair into fun, committed works of pop art, reclaiming her Afro culture as a strength, an integral part of her femininity and identity. “The idea came to me when I came across a series of old photos showing the hairstyles of African women from different tribes, which I found magnificent, artistic and truly impressive“, she says.

The Franco-Senegalese artist Delphine Diallo’s series Highness and its royal subjects feature elaborate masks, headdresses and jewellery. Captured in colour and black and white, the women are depicted as timeless and noble, wearing body paint, jewellery and clothing that draw on mythology and spiritual symbols to explore what the photographer calls the “divine female body“.

Jamaican-American artist Jessica Spence explores the beauty of black women and children adorned with fine plaits, perfect twists and plastic barrettes. Through stunning renderings, her paintings focus more on the hair than the faces of the characters, concentrating on the subtlety of each strand, nurturing each brushstroke as she would each strand of hair. “Inspired by hair as a response to the discrimination and chastisement experienced by many Afro-descendant women and girls at work or school, my paintings show the beauty and versatility of these hairstyles and highlight the importance of hair in black culture, as well as highlighting its intimate experiences and the routines of everyday life,” she explains.

The striking self-portraits of South African photographer and activist Zanele Muholi are easily recognisable. Her high-contrast black-and-white photographs focus on unique subjects dressed in elaborate, sculptural garments made from mundane, everyday objects: clothes pegs to form a necklace, dried grass as a brim for a hat, cascading rolls of toilet paper. Famous for photographing black gay subjects, she explores the radical nature of identity as a means of celebrating and respecting the other. “The work I produce is for everyone,” she declares.

Christine Cibert

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