Heady Aesthetics

The Hampton Hair Art Project

Ikem Society Dance Mask. Ekoi, Nigeria: wood 30 1/2. Photo from Black Art an International Quartely v.3, n. 2 (now the International Review of African American Art) Body art!   Walking sculptures!  Coiled, braided, threaded or in intricate twists and turns, the traditional hairstyles of African women were magnificent works of personal art.  These styles expressed the women’s beliefs and identities in skillfully artistic ways. 

Molded hair style of young woman in the 1894 class of Hampton Institute. Photo: Hampton University Museum and ArchivesToday, however, Ghanaian artist Kwabena Ampofo-Anti says that African women, responding to massive Western media influences, “want to look like Beyonce.”  They wear wigs that look like her weave.

Ampofo-Anti, a professor of art at Hampton University, is an advisor to the Hampton Hair Art Project that will demonstrate the sculptural potential of so-called “nappy” hair and encourage black women to create works of art in this medium.

Professor Tonya Blair's Marley TwistsProject team members are Marlisa Sanders, an intern at the IRAAA; Kendall Alexander, a junior broadcast journalism major; and Juliette Harris, IRAAA editor.  “The challenge of animated kink has been the incentive to produce art!” says Harris in her essay, “The Culture of Hair Sculpture” in the book Tenderheaded which she co-edited with Pamela Johnson.   “The coils of our hair are extraordinary,” she adds now.  “African women appreciated the nappy texture and hard density of their hair because these qualities made it capable of being molded into elaborate forms that could speak in all kinds of ways.”

Freshman forensic chemistry major Taylor MatthewsAfrican women’s hair styles visually signified status, spirituality, grief and other milestones in a woman’s life.  Other styles represented wise proverbs.   Fascinated by the artful diversity of these hair forms, early European explorers to Africa described them in detail in their travel journals.  

Taylor Matthews and Domynique Garrett discussing hair sculpture ideasMuch earlier, Greek artists depicted the sculptural hairstyles of black people in portraits, pendants, jewelry, coins and pottery.  Many of these hairstyles consisted of even rows of woolly twists and spirals. 

IRAAA intern Kendall Alexander likes locks.While we were researching the meaning of the hairstyle of the Ikem Society Dance mask shown here, we found a similar, large coiled hairstyle on a headdress from Ejagham, Nigeria.  This headdress is a version of a young woman’s hairstyle that is worn in a coming-of-age rite prior to marriage.  In a transgender migration of symbolism and meaning, these hair dresses are now worn by men during certain initiation and funeral rites.

IRAAA intern Marlisa Sanders wearing a twisted sculptural up-do that she createdAfrican hair culture practices were almost lost during the two and one-half centuries of enslavement of black people in North America. By the 1880s, however, vestiges of the tradition were re-emerging in molded hairstyles such as the one shown here on a young woman in the Hampton Institute class of 1894.  Braiding wet, oiled natural hair creates a smoother texture when unbraided - a technique probably used in the creation of the smooth-textured, bushy, molded style.

Hampton Hair Art Project

 Side view of Marlisa's twisted up-doThe Hampton Hair Art Project was formed in September 2012 to re-invigorate the connection between natural hair styling and sculptural creation among African and African American women. 

Nichole Knighton wears molded hairstyle similar to those worn by black women in the 1890s. Photo courtesy of the Hampton Script Back view of twisted updo-- four flat twistsIn the October 2012 “Weaves falling for natural do’s,” article in the HU student newspaper, Hampton Script, Paige Jones describes how natural hair is trending on campus.   The photo shows MBA major Nichole Knighton wearing a style resembling the molded hairstyles of black women during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The style is created by rolling, twisting and tucking the hair.

At the start of the project, we surveyed the range of styles at the university cafeteria. Marlisa Sanders noticed that “many girls had very long, straight weaves and extensions.   There were also girls who wore their hair natural.  It was interesting to see some girls wearing added hair that looked like natural hair-braids or curly.”

While in some ways, the dichotomy of weaves and naturals on Hampton’s campus is reminiscent of the Jiggaboo and Wannabee showdown in Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze, young women at Hampton are respectful of each other and their differing approaches to hair styling, unlike the snarling female characters in the film.    

 Many young women do believe that long hair signifies beauty, according to another October 2012 article by an HU student.  Olivia Lewis refers to the university’s annual homecoming as a “Hair-coming,”  in a HU Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications blog post. She interviewed entrepreneurship major Julius Nash who weaves heads year round but has a booming business during homecoming season.  “It’s always rewarding at the end to see the look on the girls’ faces and they’re thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m beautiful,’" he says. 

Some arts professionals and scholars see African resonances in the artifice of African American women’s weaves and wigs. 

For example, in the late 1990s, women with towering hair pieces and other fantastic, straight-hair styles were among the African American women surveyed by photographer Bill Gaskins. “While many African Americans who wear these styles personally reject any cultural connections between themselves and Africa, their hairstyles amount to an unconscious adaptation of traditional African hair adornment—expressing what I refer to as ancestral recall,” says Gaskins in the introduction of his book of photographs, Good Hair, Bad Hair.  “So regardless of the hairstyles chosen, be it bone straight or a crown of locks, there are African influences in all those styles."  Of course there is also the dominent influence of the Eurocentric feminine aesthetic in the lives of African American women.

Art historian Judith Wilson finds areas of agreement with Gaskins’ assessment.  In her article, “Towards an Anatomy of Culture in African American Women’s Art,” in IRAAA (vol. 11, no. 3) Wilson maintains that Africans favor “mass and volume” of hair over any other physical feature.  “Large hair usually symbolizes strength and fertility.  Africans use many practices to increase the volume and length of their hair.  Some of these practices include applying mud, binding the hair with leather, thread or other fibers and also adding animal hair.”

However, many African women routinely wore their natural hair very short, exuding feminine beauty.   Close hair reveals the sculptural contours of the head and accentuates the shape of the facial features. Another aesthetic aspect of short hair are the tight clusters of hair that African Americans disparingly describe as "bbs", but to unjaundiced eyes are a lovely, textural pattern formed by nature.

As we were collecting research for this project, a woman with an extraordinary, sculptural hairstyle visited the archives at the Hampton University Museum. Tonya Blair, a professor of history at Elizabeth City University in North Carolina, is doing research in the archives to complete her dissertation on late 19th century women graduates of Hampton Institute who were pioneering social workers. 

We had never seen anything quite like Blair’s style and wondered how it was created. “My natural hair is corn rowed to my scalp,” she explained.  “My braider crotchets synthetic twists into the natural corn rows; these twists are known to some as Marley Twists.” 

Blair has had an appreciation of African sculpture and Afrocentric aesthetics since her teens.  She began to wear “crown-shaped” styles in 1996 when she was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.   

Creative Exercise

During the Fall 2012 semester, freshman forensic chemistry major Taylor Matthews and sophomore architect major Domynique Garrett are creating a hair sculpture as part of the Hampton Hair Art Project.  Garrett will get credit for the exercise in a course that she is taking with Kwabena Ampofo-Anti.  The exercise involves Garrett reading about African and African American hair culture and creating an architectonic sculptural hairstyle with Matthew’s hair.   There’s just one guideline: Garrett cannot use any heat; she must create the style using Taylor’s natural hair texture.   “You’re training to be an architect and learning about structures and materials,” Juliette Harris told Garrett.  “So think of the mass of hair as a building material and the exercise as a practice in design.”

“This is going to be challenging and I’m stepping out of my comfort zone.  I’m both excited and nervous!”  Garrett said.

When asked about how she feels about the project, Matthews said:  “It’s a great project to show how people wear their hair differently. People normally display what they do with hair that isn’t theirs.  It’s awesome to take natural hairstyles and show them in such a positive light.” 

This is the second article in a series that began with the “Cultivated Hair” article on fiber artist Sonya Clark which can be read here.  New articles will be added as the Hampton Hair Art Project continues.  In an update to this article, we’ll show the completed hair sculpture created by Domynique Garrett.


The hairstyle that Domynique created for Taylor in December 2012 is shown below. Side view

Back view of sculptural hairstyle style for Taylor Matthews

  Sculptural hairstyle styled by Domynique for special projects class