LD-congo-hairAs an artist who expresses myself through my hair, I identified strongly with the artistic hair practices of the different peoples of Africa, so I based my research on the culture of hair. I saw the beauty in the complicated arrangements, and feel a sense of spirituality contained in hair, as we saw in Yoruba culture, and sense of identity that hair arrangement expressed in many cultures. I have no problem with hairstyles so complex, people needed special headrests in order to sleep at night without destroying them, such as the early 1900s “Cascade” hairstyle of the Luba people in the Republic Congo. (image 1A and B) However, some of the more restrictive cultures bothered me with their conformity and imposition on personal freedom, such as the strict rules for women’s hair in the Mende culture,(images 2A and B) or the strong conformity of the pastoral peoples of Kenya. As I don’t like to feel judgmental of other cultures, and have always identified with African American culture, I decided to deconstruct my opposition, using concepts I have been learning in the World Arts and Cultures department at UCLA. It came down to a matter of perspective, my time in history, and the affects of Colonization and Post-colonialism on culture, as expressed on different sides of the issue. What I discovered was the same expression of “Freedom” and “non-conformity,” that my hair has come to represent for me, expressed in the practices that I had judged restrictive and conforming.

I will be focusing on the cultures of the pastoral peoples of Kenya, (Images 3A-D) somewhat on the people of Nigeria, compared to a strong African American hair expression, the “Afro,” and my own expression of “freedom” displayed in my hair. As we learned in class, the Samburu, the Pikot, and the Turkana, who occupy the northeastern side of Kenya, are pastoralists and traditionally nomadic. These groups live in close proximity to one another, and use a strong code of regulated dress and body adornment not only to distinguish themselves from their neighboring groups, but also as a form of self-governing. As we discussed in class, because these groups are nomadic, without large accumulations of possessions, body adornment is virtually their only art form, and so more focus is placed on this than in other groups. This regulated code of dress includes hairstyle, with each group having separate ways of arranging and adorning their hair, according to each individual’s place in the community. (Cole  13-14) The men tend to have more elaborate hairstyles, while the women either shave their heads or keep their braids small and few. For example, Samburu men have long red braids while the women shave their heads and focus more on other adornments. (images 3A and B) Within each group, strict codes of body adornment exist as a form of social politics, serving as a visual marker for a person’s status, age, occupation, or stage in life. Leading a pastoral lifestyle herding cattle, these peoples also have more leisure time to devote to the pursuit of body and hair adornment, and take great pride in their adornment and their ethnicity. (14) The visual conformity created by this social system is, I believe, what caused a negative response in me, as well as the lack of freedom to wear my hair the way I wish. For example what if I, as a Samburu woman, wanted to grow long red braids on my head instead of shaving it?

Likewise, the Yoruba peoples, who lived in the area now Nigeria, traditionally used hairstyle as part of a visual system of identification, though this has changed somewhat over time. The Yoruba place strong spiritual significance on the head, relating to their creation story, and have “strict canons of beauty” (Leveau and Hahner 2003:176) for women, with codes of meaning imbedded within hairstyles. Again, my sense of “freedom of expression” was offended by the strong ideals of beauty for women and restrictive rules concerning hair arrangement. In deconstructing my “Gaze,” the perspective from which I view these cultures,  I found it necessary to look at history and my place within it, which is the source of my feelings about hair arrangement.

Hair, as an artistic expression of culture, is a reflection of history, and as such expresses resistance or compliance to the dominant culture, including declarations of freedom, throughout history. From resistance of the French Revolution, moving away from the elaborate and absurd styles set by the French court in the 19th century, (Frasco 1994: 39-40, 76-79) to the “Bob” of the early 1900s, embraced by Women’s suffrage movements and intellectuals as a symbol of their “drive for emancipation” from the inequality of the male dominated culture, causing great controversy in some circles, such as the church and in business. (Frasco 1994: 108-111) In the 1930s, fashion trend setting passed to Hollywood and the newly emerging mass media, and Hollywood’s picture of “ideal beauty” emerged, as depicted in Platinum blond Jean Harlowe, (Image 4) luring women back to softer, longer, more “feminine” hair, (115). This began what I have called a culture of “hair capitalism,” in which not only were images of beauty sold to people via mass media, technology and haircare products for creating and maintaining these “soft,” “natural” looking hairstyles exploded, along with the national market. There were devices for straightening, if your hair was too curly, devices for curling stick-straight hair, hair dye became the norm from covering grey hair to conceal age,  to the platinum blond of the ideal Hollywood woman. With the elaborate, hair-sprayed stiff, colorful, headress-like styles that sprung up in the 1950s, such as the Bouffant or the Beehive, “hair capitalism” was booming. (image 5) Women were enslaved to their weekly salon appointments and hair regimes. (115-125) Even African American women, who were still trying to recover their sense of identity and self-respect after the end of slavery, were sold wigs sporting all the latest styles for white women at that time, and offered, as described in this advertisement, “A New Kind of Freedom.” (image 7) The “freedom” to assimilate into the dominant culture, as sold to them by mass media.

After slavery ended, African Americans’ hair made a slow progression towards straightening, as an indication of progress and equality with whites. African hairstyles did not survive the hardship of slavery, especially after the slave trade became a domestic operation, however the importance placed on hair was still strong, and most women simply covered their hair. In trying to justify slavery and colonization, around the turn of the century, references by Europeans to African/slave hair was often as “wool” instead of hair, as had been previously. (Jackson 2000: 183) To Madame C.J. Walker, (image 8) who made her fortune creating a business line of haircare and straightening products and promoting use of the straightening comb, it was about helping women regain “pride in their personal appearance,” and women’s mental health. (Jackson 2000: 183-184) However, anti-assimilationists like Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey argued against hair straightening, calling it a form of self-hatred (184) to emulate a culture that justifies slavery and colonization. At this time I would like to suggest that the encouraged assimilation of African diaspora into the dominant culture, which included hair straightening as a symbol of “progress,” was the same hegemonic force at work in colonial and post-colonial Africa, as well as among White Americans, that of capitalism.

LD1yrIn 1962 when I came into the world, with my perfect coif of hair, Pop culture was competing with designers in setting trends of hair arrangement. My mother, who always identified with counter-cultures, wearing her own long, straight hair “Beatnick” style in a pony tail, nevertheless made certain her children had proper salon cuts. (images 6A and B) The Beatles, introduced long straight hair that hung in one’s face, setting the tone for the gender-challenging styles to come, with women’s hair getting shorter and mens hair getting longer. (Bryer 2000: 132-133) After a brief and horrific experiment with “the Shag” haircut of the early 70s, my mother allowed me to make my own hair decisions, which was to let it grow. Fortunately for me, my mother had also been influenced by the 1968 Rock musical “Hair,” and the Hippie movement, and embraced the values expressed in the musical, including allowing me the “freedom” to grow my hair.

Image 10: Cast of “Hair, The Rock Musical.” From History of Hair
Image 10: Cast of “Hair, The Rock Musical.” From History of Hair

“Hair, the Rock Musical,” (image 10) featured four, diverse, long haired “Hippies” representing freedom from the hegemonic forces of capitalism: colonization, rejection of wars fought for capitalism, the inequality inherent in capitalism, annihilation or assimilation of any culture that does not support capitalist values, and a lifestyle dominated by labor. (Frasco 1994: 126-127, Bryer 2000: 133-134) Hippies represented love and peace, and welcomed diversity, acceptance of people different than oneself, values my mother also embodied, and as a child without knowing the extent of what I was attracted to, I embraced this identity and it has stuck with me ever since. The impact on African American hair was also not lost on me. I had grown up in African American neighborhoods, often the only white family in our neighborhood, and felt a strong identification with Black people. I was immersed in the social aspect of hair arrangement, still very strong in African diaspora, and always felt my hair was somehow lacking in the sculptural modes of arrangement open to African hair, and that I was excluded from the hair social scene. My step sister, who is Panamanian, sported an enormous afro which was far more exciting to me than my own long limp hair. I am not sure I understood at the time, what this wild, dynamic hairstyle symbolized, but I was drawn to its sense of freedom.

The afro was part of a narrative, constructed in the 1950s by college students, of “repudiation” for the half century of assimilation depicted by hair straightening. (Jackson 2000:178-179) Artists, of course, always quick to express symbols of resistance, then picked it up and dispersed it to the masses through art. Lorraine Hansbury, a writer of the Harlem Renaissance, endorsed it in her play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” (image 9A and B) a show which made her the first Black female director on Broadway when it opened in 1959, starring Sidney Poitier. (179) One character, Beneatha Younger, a college student seeking to reconnect with her African roots, is dancing in traditional Nigerian dress and a head wrap, which she pulls off to reveal a small afro, much to the horror of her family. Her brother makes a joke about the “African bush,” and her date is horrified. (Hansbury 1958: Act II) This mode of thinking, challenging assimilation and reclaiming African identity, was controversial at that time, consequently the afro was banned from both the 1959 Broadway show and the 1961 film. Beneatha’s hair remained covered throughout the scene, which made the subsequent scenes in which the afro caused conflict with her family and her date, fall rather flat. In “Hair,” the afro made a public declaration of “freedom,” alongside others rejecting the values of capitalism. It was soon adopted by Black Liberation Movements, as displayed by Angela Davis of the Black Power movement, pictured in 1968 giving a speech at UCLA where she taught Philosophy, shortly before she was asked by Governor Ronald Reagan to step down from her position for her radical views. (image 11) To understand why the afro, which represented a fight for liberation, not only for African diaspora in America, but support for the colonized peoples of Africa, was not well received by many Africans, I must digress into a brief discussion about the affects of colonization, post-colonialism,  and capitalism, on the culture of the colonized.

We learned in class about the hierarchal concept of “civilization” that colonizers imposed upon the African peoples, as justification for colonization, the view of African societies as “primitive,” and Europeans as more “advanced” and helping them to “progress.” In comparing two photographs, both from 1960 around colonial Nigeria, one can see the polarization happening: in one, two urban looking girls wear western-style clothes and wigs with popular American hairstyles, in the other, a bare-breasted rural mother and child in traditional hairstyles. (images 12 and 13) Whether assimilated or in traditional styles, the ordered, carefully coifed heads of the Yoruba Nigerian woman, to whom the hairstyle is a reflection of the state of mind, would see the afro as unkempt, anti-social, even a sign of madness, likened to a jungle. (Lawal 1996: 95-96, 102) The afro was criticized and even referred to as “a cultural, imperialist invasion” that “gnawed at the roots of African personality.” (Jackson: 2000: 180) Colonized Africans were fighting the discourse of  racial and social inferiority imposed by the colonizers and prove they could govern themselves, and the wild “wooly” afro was seen by many as a step backward.

The 1960s-90s was a time of “hair rebellion,” as the colonized peoples of the African continent struggled to throw off colonial domination. In the article, from my WAC 20 class, “National Liberation and Culture,” Amilcar Cabral discusses the affects of post-colonialism on the culture of the colonized and national liberation movements. He describes the annihilation or assimilation of the culture of the colonized, as necessary for the success of colonization and its economic and political system, that of capitalism, a model left behind in the new independent “Nations” that formed, a system which justifies slavery and colonization. He goes on to suggest the failure ultimately of the colonizers to do so in Africa, and how culture “took refuge” in the villages and forests, and “in the spirit of the victims of colonization.” (Cabral 1994: 58-60)

Image 14: From a photography series of women’s hairstyles in 1960s and 1970s by photographer Ojeikere Shangalti. website.
Image 14: From a photography series of women’s hairstyles in 1960s and 1970s by photographer Ojeikere Shangalti. website.


As the freedom struggle rose, so did a resurgence of ethnicity and cultural representation, including traditional hairstyles. Ojeikere Shangalti, photographer and member of the Nigerian Arts Council, recalled that after independence in 1961 they were “full of ideas,” (website) and he began a series of photographs during the 1960s – 1970s, dedicated to Nigerian culture, including a collection of close to a thousand carefully documented hairstyles taken everywhere in the streets. (image 14) This rise in ethnicity migrated with Africans to other parts of the world. In the U.S., African American artists like Cisily Tyson and Stevie Wonder began wearing Nigerian style braids (Images 15A and B) as show of support for colonized Africa fighting for their freedom, and as a reconnection with their roots, and was then adopted and reinterpreted by the masses. Braided hair came to represent the “freedom” of the African, and rejection of assimilation into the homogeny that capitalism requires.

Image 16: Turkana women, from the “Before they Pass Away” series by photographer Jimmy Nelson.
Image 16: Turkana women, from the “Before they Pass Away” series by photographer Jimmy Nelson.

This brings us back to the pastoralists in northeast Kenya, whose culture was less affected by colonization, partly due to their location on the border of Somalia, and partly to their fierce sense of identity. Cabral also suggests that the more different a culture is, and therefore out of the comprehension of the colonizers, the better chance it had of resisting annihilation. (Cabral 1994: 60) I found some very beautiful shots of Samburu men and women by European photographer Jimmy Nelson, (images 3, 16, and 18)) who did a series of photographs of, to which he devoted an entire website in order to learn about, “Indigenous tribes” of peoples, ominously entitled, “Before They Pass Away.” The traditional lifestyle of the Samburu, the Pikot, and the Turkana, was pastoral and nomadic, egalitarian, uncluttered, self-governing, self-sustaining, and unhurried, not a good mixture with a capitalist system, which requires political and economic homogenity. Their fight for independence has been a fight for a way of life that is outside of the capitalist system, and their continued show of cultural ethnicity, which includes regulated hairstyles as part of their social politics, is a show of freedom from the hegemonic forces of capitalism, a system which justifies colonization. What I had judged as “conformity” was actually “non-conformity” to a value system that conflicts with their own, an expression of freedom, as much as the political afro, and just as displayed in my own hair today.

Image 17: My daughter and me at my wedding in 2010, Burning Man.
Image 17: My daughter and me at my wedding in 2010, Burning Man.

My own hair “freedom” is more than a freedom of expression. As I had become more opposed to, and proactive about, what I had viewed as cyclical consumerism, fed by imposed ideas of beauty to which a multitude of products- or surgeries- would help us achieve, I stopped using many of the unnecessary, and even damaging, products I felt had been imposed upon us, such as shampoo. I decided to stop “buying” the “fight aging” campaign and stopped coloring my grey hair. In doing so I am rejecting the image sold to us by mass media that we must hide our aging at any cost, and expressing freedom to think a different way; freedom from the hegemonic forces of capitalism. Like the Kenyans, this is seen most strongly at my yearly festival, Burning Man, where I can express myself fully, and freely. It is an alternate culture, where our interactions with one another do not revolve around buying and selling, and where we are free to express our resistance through art. Being also temporarily semi-nomadic, and residing in a harsh, dusty, windy climate, body art, particularly unique and practical hair design is common, many of the styles utilized reminded me of the Kenyans; the art of wearing our “identity” on our persons. The festival is an expression of freedom from assimilating into the dominant culture, that of capitalism. My freedom to wear my hair in controversial arrangements, such as a mohawk, a common style for me at the festival, represents my freedom not to assimilate into the culture prescribed by capitalism, just as the Samburu, the Pikot, and the Turkana.

Image 18: Samburu women (mother-daughter?) From the “Before they Pass Away” series by photographer Jimmy Nelson.
Image 18: Samburu women (mother-daughter?) From the “Before they Pass Away” series by photographer Jimmy Nelson.


Works cited:

Cole, Herbert M. “Vital Arts in Northern Kenya,” in African Arts. Vol. 7, No. 2. pp. 1974. 12-23, 82.

Roberts, Mary Nooter and Allen F. “Body Memory” in Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History. New York and Munich: The Museum for African Art and Prestel. 1996. pp. 85-91 and 98-15,

Cabral, Amilcar. “National Liberation and Culture,” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory. Eds. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. 53-65.

Babatunde, Lawal, “Orilonise: The Hermeneutics of the Head and Hairstyles among the Yoruba” in Hair in African Art and Culture. New York. Museum for African Art. 2000.

Musée Dapper. “Headdresses and hairstyles among the Yoruba,” in Parures de tête. Éditions Dapper, Paris, 2003.

Frasco, Mary. Daring Do’s: A History of Extraordinary Hair. Flammarion. Paris-New York. 1994

Bryer, Robin. The History of Hair. Philip Wilson. London. 2000.

Nelson, Jimmy. “Before They Pass Away.” website, http://www.beforethey.com/journey/kenya—tanzania

“Black Voices.” Website, http://black-history.blackvoices.com/2011/01/12/black-history-and-hair/ 2011

Sharp, Gwen. “Sociological Images.” http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2009/01/page/5/ 2009