Black hair is for real.
African Americans have been dealing with their hair for hundreds of years — whether to alter or hide it to conform with dominant (white) standards of beauty, or to keep it and grow it out naturally, even let it go wild.
A new exhibition presented by Cypress College is exploring the many expressions of African hair and what hair — natural, teased, altered or represented — means to Black people, and to the culture writ large.
“Hairtage: Tangled, Twisted, and Black” opened at the Cypress College Art Gallery Jan. 21 and runs through March 25. When we say “opened,” we mean virtually and online only, in compliance with state health restrictions. Under the purple tier that all of Southern California still finds itself in, museums and collegiate art galleries must remain closed during this ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The online group show features images of the art, detail shots and bios representing each artist. According to the organizers, the plan is to present the exhibit in-person and in the flesh when Cypress College can reopen and return to in-person instruction, which hasn’t been determined yet.
The exhibition curator is Nzuji De Magalhaes, an Angolan American visual artist who resides in Long Beach. She’s also an art instructor at Cypress College, Long Beach City College and Rio Hondo College in Whittier.
De Magalhaes said the idea for organizing “Hairtage” sparked from the aftermath of the brutal police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, and the subsequent protests, social unrest and ongoing Black Lives Matter movement.
“The vision of it was very important,” said De Magalhaes, a graduate of UC Irvine who lived in Costa Mesa for 13 years. “With the situation that’s going on now, we wanted to start with the body, the self. You have to start somewhere, and we decided to start — literally — from the roots down.”
Obviously, the word “hairtage” is a combination of “heritage” and “hair” — a term coined by other Black writers, actors and artists, De Magalhaes said. (It may also appear as “hair-itage.”)
The combination “makes a lot of sense,” De Magalhaes said. “It’s one of the elements of our own individualism, and the structure that’s been changed or tried to be changed. It points at the roots of our very existence.”
Black or African hair and its place in American culture is not a new area of examination. It’s been the subject of numerous magazine and online articles, and was the topic of exploration in a 2009 documentary titled “Good Hair,” starring and narrated by comedian Chris Rock. That film won the Special Jury Prize for a Documentary at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
But this group visual art exhibit in Cypress may be one of the first in California to explore hair from Black artists’ points of view.
The artists highlighted in this show are Cedric Adams, Sharon Barnes, April Bey, Janet E. Dandridge, the curator De Magalhaes, Regina Herod and Kimberly Morris.
Adams, 68 (Feb. 25 is his birthday), who recently retired from his position as senior art preparator at the L.A. County Museum of Art, draws detailed graphite-on-paper works that are amalgamations of people he has seen, met, photographed and imagined. He has been drawing and creating art since 1968.
“I will look at people — I may use the ears from one, a dainty chin from another, the eyes and I’ll put them all together,” he said. “It will look as if someone that we may know will appear. Some people I see — I record that in my mind’s eye. And then I pull from what I remembered.”
Adams attended Compton Community College, Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Fullerton. His work has been exhibited throughout the United States, including the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, the Watts Towers Arts Center in L.A., the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Angel’s Gate Cultural Center in San Pedro and the National Afro-American Museum in Wilberforce, Ohio.
He says he remembers natural Black hair coming in and out of style over several generations.
“There was a celebration of Black pride during the ‘60s, and people had ‘nappy’ hair. They said, ‘I’m going to leave it that way, and accentuate that, and let it grow into a natural.’ There was an artistic cultural renaissance.”
Adams sees hair, especially for African Americans, as more than just a style.
“It was a symbol of resistance, of empowerment, the same as a raised, clenched fist,” said the L.A.-based artist. “It was natural (during the 1960s and ‘70s) — let my hair grow out, and I’m not ashamed of it. It was a symbol of not just a hair style, but of a return to African identity.”
The other artists in this exhibition work in various media, from collage and photography to sculpture, installation and performance. Kimberly Morris, who is of Creole African and European heritage, uses her own hair in her work.
The curator De Magalhaes utilizes everyday, colored yarn in her three-dimensional pieces.
“I use yarn in everything,” she said. “It’s because of the domesticity of the medium. It’s something you will see your grandma work with. It’s a medium used for mindless activity — but again, the yarn can also be, even though it’s very soft, it can be very dangerous, if it’s not used in proper way. It burns if it’s close to fire. It can be used as rope.”
In conjunction with “Hairtage,” Cypress College Art Gallery is also presenting a speaker series, featuring the artists in live Zoom talks and conversations. The two that have occurred with Bey and Adams have already proven to be lively and engaging.
Participants in both sessions discussed the recent incident in which a Louisiana resident, Tessica Brown, posted a TikTok video about her plight after Gorilla Glue-ing her hair into place. It stuck for more than a month. The video went viral and she’s been vilified, parodied and sympathized with in various media and by numerous celebrities.
Coming up on the speakers schedule are Sharon Barnes on Thursday, Feb. 25 from 12:20-1:40 p.m.; Janet E. Dandridge on March 2 from 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; Cedric Adams again on March 3 from 1:20–2:20 pm; Regina Herod on March 9 from 6-7:30 p.m.; De Magalhaes on March 16 from 4:30-5:45 p.m.; and Kimberly Morris from 6-7:30 p.m. Check out the gallery’s speaker series site for exact Zoom links.
Janet Owen Driggs, director of the Cypress College Art Gallery and an associate professor of art history at the college, said creating a platform for these Black artists “was a really important thing for us to do.”
“It’s important for the students as well,” she said. “They are able to express the degree of oppression that they feel, by being held to European standards of beauty. The degree to which young African American women feel that they have to distort their natural self … impacts them on such a powerful level.
“What we’re also doing here, or attempting to do, is to create an environment where people feel welcome to speak their truth. We want to provide arenas for honest inter-racial discussion.”
Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.