WAM Doing Hair Exhibition Dissapointment

By Panashe Chigumadzi (@panashechig)

I shook my head and sighed, I knew that from the beginning, the exhibition had gotten something fundamentally wrong. The head curator of an exhibition that primarily focused on black hair was a white woman, who had no real access to what continues to be a deeply political and personal experience for black people. (As I later found, the majority of the curating team was white too). Yet another black experience explored through what Toni Morrison calls, the ‘white gaze’. This was a great disappointment from an academic institution in Africa. 

The Wits Arts Museum Doing Hair Exhibition sponsored by Black Like Me opened on the 19th August. I was there that night and I am only writing about it now, because I have really had no words. No nice words, to be fair.

Here is a tweet from Sunday’s Hair CODESA on twitter that might aptly describe my sentiment:

@OyaAmore: @lebomashile “afro combs” and cheap mirrors. What the Wits Art Museum thinks about “Black hair”. Exhibit A: http://twitter.com/OyaAmore/status/516253093831651328/photo/1”

 

Where to begin?

My sense of anxiety about subjecting myself to yet another anthropological exhibit on blackness began when I read a City Buzz before attending the event, which quoted the curator, Prof. Anitra Nettleton as follows:

“Europeans have been playing with their hair over millennia, as have Africans, and there is no reason why they should not all continue to do so – the blonde-haired black soccer stars in the premier league are not doing anything that is… out of line,” she said. 

While she did allow that ‘“viscerally personal issues of hair” remained, even in post-apartheid, post-colonial and post-radical feminist spaces.’, I found that many of her statements lended themselves to trivialising the politics of the black hair experience.

I shook my head and sighed, I knew that from the beginning, the exhibition had gotten something fundamentally wrong. The head curator of an exhibition that primarily focused on black hair was a white woman, who had no real access to what continues to be a deeply political and personal experience for black people. (As I later found, the majority of the curating team was white too). Yet another black experience explored through what Toni Morrison calls, the ‘white gaze’. This was a great disappointment from an academic institution in Africa.

I decided to give it a try and see if the curating team was able to move beyond this issue of representation and translate the nuance of black hair on the continent through history.

They could not. A lack of nuance and insight permeates the exhibition.

While the exhibition makes extensive use of mixed media through videos of hair ads, photographs, traditional masks, sculptures and hair styling artifacts and more, that does not save it from the lack of content.

What I, and the number of others I did a snap survey on, saw was that this is a shallow interpretation of hair on the continent.

I did not learn anything new, except for the new ways in which I can be othered in South Africa.

What about the politics of hair today? What about the social mobility it affords many? What about the economics of black hair care and who owns it? What of the new styles – a bo Rihanna, popcorn, s curl? What about the natural hair movement? What about the health effects – be it (the lack of) hairlines, burnt scalps and more?

The only depth that I found at the exhibition, came in Millisuthando Bongela’s speech. There were many snaps from the audience as she beautifully articulated the personal, political and cosmetic aspects of our black hair experiences.

The only other good thing that came from the exhibition was the effort to bring in some of the 50 or so hair salons in Braamfontein, through the submission of images of hair styles they create.

What was most surprising and disappointing for me was that it was sponsored by a black-owned black hair company. I wondered, did you only honestly walk through this exhibition and think this was the best way to present your community? Maybe, you’re seeing this for the first time, so you have to be polite? Hang on, it doesn’t start here, what questions did you ask, if at all, in that boardroom when you were first presented with this idea?

Judging from the exhibition, I don’t think any hard questions were asked.

I would not recommend going to see it, except as an exercise in viewing how the white gaze views continues to view us.

Doing Hair: Hair and art in Africa, sponsored by Black Like Me, will run until 1 November at Wam, corner of Bertha Avenue and Jorissen Street, Braamfontein.

 

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