The Washington-based artist Nakeya Brown explains, “during the turn of the 20th century, we internalised the idea that straightened hair was crucial to attaining beauty, social mobility, and economic prosperity. It resulted in African Americans inventing various ways to manipulate our hair to mimic straightened types”. We spoke to her about the use of hair in her imagery, to highlight and challenge society’s narrow definitions of beauty.
‘The Art of Sealing Ends’ from ‘Hair Stories Untold’
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your practice? I studied both photography and journalism at Rutgers University in New Jersey. It was during that time that I really started to use photography as a tool to explore African American experiences. Early on I was more invested in documentary photography and capturing the nature of things, the essence of people, without the insertion of my own personal experiences.
What draws you to hair as a subject matter? Going natural and becoming a mother drew me to exploring hair creatively within my work. These experiences created room for critical reflection on beauty, how it’s defined, negotiated, and visualised in my community and outside of it.
‘Lovin, Livin, and Givin’ from ‘If Nostalgia Were Colored Brown’
‘Free’ from ‘If Nostalgia Were Colored Brown’
‘You Stepped Into My Life’ | ‘The Edge of A Dream’ from ‘If Nostalgia Were Colored Brown’
“We have a relationship with hair that both enables and extracts a sense of beauty”
‘Hot Comb and Mitten’ | ‘Shower CrownRoyal’ from ‘Hair Stories Untold’
‘Before I Lay Me Down to Sleep’ | ‘Art of Sealing Ends Pt. 2′ from ‘Hair Stories Untold’
How is hair represented in your work? In my work hair symbolises experiences grounded in blackness and womanhood. We have a relationship with hair that both enables and extracts a sense of beauty. America has a history of setting beauty standards relative to whiteness. I feel that my work is significant because it attempts to negotiate new meanings and representations from our collective memories.
What is your intention for the work? How do you want the viewer to feel? I make work that stems from the personal, so each project has its own position and sense of feeling. In my series ‘If Nostalgia Were Colored Brown’ I want the viewer to feel a sense of nobility, grace, and admiration. In ‘The Refutation of “Good” Hair’, I expect the viewer to feel some discomfort, whereas in ‘Hair Stories Untold’, I want the viewer to feel curiosity and familiarity.
‘Hair Portrait #2’ from ‘The Refutation of “Good” Hair’
‘Kanekalon on a Fork’ from ‘The Refutation of “Good” Hair’
Could you write a bit about your favorite piece? I’m drawn to ‘Kanekalon on a Fork’ (above) showing a fork and knife set against a white cloth. The hair twirled between the teeth of the fork reminds me of the hair that is often caught between the teeth of combs. Kanekalon hair is a synthetic, fibrous material imported from countries such as China and India, but has been adapted into black culture.
In this instance, the hair is meant to represent the ways in which we consume soft and silky hair within the canon of beauty that defines African American physicality. During the turn of the 20th century, we internalised the idea that straightened hair was crucial to attaining beauty, social mobility, and economic prosperity. It resulted in African Americans inventing various ways to manipulate our hair to mimic straightened types. This picture couples table etiquette with straight hair, and only straight hair, to reveal society’s narrow definition of appropriate appearance and beauty.
Interview Emma de Clercq Images Nakeya Brown Website