Hair braiding as Art

Society & Culture | By Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Artist / Educator | 09 May 2015

Interview by Sabina Seldon

When did you first become interested in hair? How did this manifest itself?
I moved to New Haven, Connecticut for graduate school in July 2009. I’d twisted my hair for the long trip to the States the night before leaving Harare. When I needed to change my hairstyle after a few weeks but couldn’t find the right comb in the supermarket or pharmacy that was something of a beginning. I didn’t comb my hair for 461 days.

What? 461 days?
Yeah, that’s really when I became interested in hair, not so much as a subject, but as material. When I travelled to the United Kingdom for my summer vacation in 2010, friends and family were concerned about my lack of shaping and styling. Then my older sister presented me with a set of black plastic combs. The packet contained 10 combs each of varying sizes. I knew I needed these things in my life. Not so much as instruments to train and groom my unkempt mane but as objects of interest. I took the combs back to my desk at the Yale School of Art and hung them on the wall. This was the first spark of inspiration that led me down the path I’m on with a project related to the shape and form of hair.

Tell me about Recess? What is it?
Recess is a small not for profit organisation led by Allison Weisburg. Recess runs an artist project space out of a storefront at street level in Soho, New York. I applied for their residency program, Session, in 2014. I had finished graduate school in 2012. My full time teaching schedule does not afford me much time to get my own art work done. The residency is open to artists or different disciplines and invites them to use the space to develop work and present process and development to an audience ranging from curious passers-by to an initiated art audience. Being interested in braiding as a visual form and formula for building, I used the residency to learn more about braiding. I set up workshops and invited facilitators to lead groups of twelve participants to learn two to three techniques in a session. There was a lot of sharing around past hairdressing experiences, differences in techniques, memories from childhood, issues around identity and gender. I also curated film screenings with Shani Peters, a multi-disciplinary artist based in New York. Our collection comprised Black American films that had influenced black women’s concepts of self-presentation. These included Coming to America; House Party; Poetic Justice, starring Janet Jackson in those unforgettable box braids rivalled only by dancehall artist, Patra; and not forgetting Set
It Off.

What is Ruka? How did the idea for it begin?
Ruka (To knit / to braid / to weave) is what I called the project I did at Recess. It was my attempt to work through thoughts around the contemporary practice of hair braiding. My goal was to create a space echoing and rhyming with hair braiding salons I’d visited in Harlem, Brooklyn, Detroit and back home in Zimbabwe. They all had so much in common; the brightly coloured walls; the television propped high on the wall mostly playing Nollywood movies; and vendors passing through selling socks, snacks, insects and toys. I became fascinated by these spaces and wanted to think about them more. My project at Recess was a redrawing of an Afrikan hair braiding salon. I quickly found that recreating the space was impossible without using it.

What were your inspirations for the project?
Actually, a previous iteration of the Recess project happened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit in November 2012. I’d been invited by their Department of Education and Public Engagement for a two week residency and one of the obligations was to host a public event on the museum’s family day. Having found myself in conversation with hairdressers whilst exploring the city, I invited two of them to the museum. Dina Peace agreed to teach me how to braid and a barber, going by the name Zoonine, came to cut my hair at family day. This event recorded the largest visitor turn out the museum had ever experienced. Since Detroit’s population is 87% Black American, visitors were really excited to have an event directly addressing their cultural practices. As I sat in the barber’s chair with Zoonine giving me the freshest haircut I’ve ever had, I talked with and listened to community members share ideas around black hair aesthetics in a Black American and Afrikan context. After that, I knew I had to continue with this work.

What did you learn from your “Ruka” experience?
I got to assist a new colleague, Sanchel Brown, in braiding waist length box braids on two heads. My hands and feet and back hurt badly after we’d finished and I learnt that braiding is hard work. Five hours on your feet with your hands going all the time! I’ve tried to incorporate principles in my artwork from the practice of hair braiding; namely that labour and repetition are important to the formal and conceptual decisions that create meaning and aesthetic in the resulting works.

And the gorgeous Lupita came to see your project at Recess?
Lupita was already a friend from graduate school. What was great was doing the Vogue video with her and a group of her friends; some from the Theatre department at Yale, and others from her undergrad days. Lupita plaits really well. She doesn’t pull too hard. I was impressed by her skill.

Why did you focus on braiding in particular with Ruka? What other styles interest you?
I’m interested in threaded hair. My mother would do this for us going to school. I remember how most people did not like to get maBuns down. Some of my friends with longer hair had more elaborate styles using this technique. I really love the visual result of creating sections of hair that then get bound together in this way. My mother would thread her hair into many single spikes. I miss seeing these kinds of images. Weaves are a formal architectural structure and interest me too but I’m not sure about doing anything with them yet.

What are your plans for Ruka in the future, if any?
I’m starting work on a reader/sort of magazine for hair braiding salons in which I’ll cover issues around immigration, the economics and laws around salons etc. I hope to interview a doctor on repetitive strain disorder that can affect your wrists if you do the long stretches doing the kind of work hair braiders do. I want to supply hair braiders with information on how to take care of themselves and offer information about accessing therapy for repetitive strain disorder.

What are your earliest memories of doing your hair?
I grew up in a home with three sisters. My mother was too busy to do our hair and took us to the barber regularly to get our hair cut down to short cropped afros, till we were about eleven or twelve. Once I stopped getting these haircuts, my mom would sit me on the floor in front of her whist she watched soccer. She was a Liverpool fan. She’d tug tighter and thread faster when the game was getting really exciting. I loved her becoming so animated but hated my hair being pulled so tight. The next day I’d go to school with what my friends and I called a ‘face lift’. You know, your hair pulled so tight you’d have ‘slit’ eyes. We had so much language around hair, like ‘shungu pony tail’. Well when you had a face lift, everybody tried to make you laugh, which was torture for your facial muscles. They wanted to contract but your hair made them taught. I got my revenge making funny faces and telling my best jokes when the tables were turned on my friends.

What hairstyle do you currently have? What do you think it says about you?
Haha, I haven’t combed it lately but it’s always washed. Isn’t it interesting, though, how a hairstyle can frame your state of mind and the way you project your personality? I find people tend to police others about personal choices around presentation.

True. Who are your hair icons?
None other than Grace Jones. Her sleek cropped flat top is one of the most powerful hairstyles I’ve ever seen. We’re socialised to think about self-styling within gendered boundaries but we need to challenge these notions, play with them and just do what feels good for you.

What’s your next hairstyle?
A flat top with patterns shaved into the sides. I’m not sure what the pattern will be but I’ll go to a really good barber who can do something that feels like lace around the sides and back of
my head.

Interesting…..Will you do braids? Do you ever braid your own hair?
Attempts to flat twist and cornrow my hair have proved challenging, but I know how practice improves any technique. I want to install my own braids in a few weeks. Braiding is expensive in New York and some of my friends are doing it for themselves. But for me, it’s so much easier to work on someone else.

Any last thoughts or comments?
In my next life I want to create an art space around hairdressing which teaches hairdressing as an economic tool but also as a creative skill. In Zimbabwe, we undervalue hairdressing practitioners. They provide an important service and we need to start rethinking this. They are people we allow to touch us and carve or sculpt an integral part of our public presentation.