Black Hair and Heritage
Korantema Anyimadu is an independent researcher, creator and curator. Upon receiving funding from the Mayor of London ‘Culture Seeds’ Programme, she curated Plaits, Princesses + Pink Moisturiser and most recently conducted two workshops for Waltham Forest London Borough of Culture, called Black Hair and Heritage. Korantema also works for charity organisation Arts Emergency as London Programmes Officer.
In this article for Words of Colour, Korantema speaks about why she created the Black Hair and Heritage project.
In a cave in the Saharan Tassili Plateau, a faint painting of a woman breastfeeding is drawn onto the stone walls. The rock painting is dated to 3500 BC and the woman is painted wearing cornrows. A few weeks into my Masters, in the dark corners of the UCL Archaeology Library, I stumbled across this image in a book called Black Women in Antiquity by Ivan Van Sertima. Not only was I ecstatic to find a book about the representation of black women in archaeology, but it was also strangely comforting seeing a hairstyle I had worn many times, reflected all the way back in the Neolithic period. It was during my Masters in Cultural Heritage that I started to research the history of hair and its significance for women of the African and Caribbean diaspora. For my dissertation, I spoke to more than 50 women about how they used their hair to stand out, fit in, form relationships and sometimes, break them:
“My hair is a more important representation for people who interact with me because my skin is so light that sometime people question if I am black or mixed race. Now I have my hair in dreadlocks, I am unmistakably black”
“My partner at the time felt that straight hair was sexier and easier to handle – it made me feel like curls were messy and straight hair was neat and attractive”
“As a result of social pressure about how my hair looks, I’ve buzz cut it at least 3 times in my life so that I wouldn’t have any hair at all and not have to worry about it”
Hair exists in a contradictory place of love, pain, self-expression and oppression. We’re all familiar with the stories of people being fired from workplaces for not looking professional enough, US soldiers banned from having dreadlocks and South African students disciplined for wearing Afros. Hair is yet another facet of the black body that is policed. Despite this, it also offers the space for intimacy, especially between mothers, aunties, grandmothers and sisters.
On Friday evenings after an (unwilling) swimming lesson at a leisure centre in east London, my mum would sit me and my sister down in the living room to begin the arduous task of washing, detangling and plaiting our hair. I say arduous because that time was mainly spent with my neck at an unnatural angle, straining to see EastEnders on the TV with my bum cheeks going numb on the floor. I have thick hair which many a comb has lost its teeth in. Looking back, I realise the patience my mum took to properly care for our hair was a sign of love. For a mother who worked two jobs, this Friday evening ritual was one of the only times we spent alone in each other’s company.
It was memories like this that drove me to curate an exhibition in 2018 called Plaits, Princesses + Pink Moisturiser. The exhibition included the stories of 25 black women and femmes, a special object that inspired a memory of their hair, and a portrait taken by the photographer Nana Ama Owusu Ansah. The exhibition featured Dawn Butler MP reflecting on the peace she felt after loc-ing her hair; author, Otegha Uwagba, reminiscing about the Blue Magic induced stain she used to leave on her pillow as a child; drag king, Wesley Dykes’ love of India Arie and the uplifting lyrics of I Am Not My Hair.
As part of the London Borough of Culture this year, I am extending my project on hair in my home borough, Waltham Forest. Through intergenerational art workshops, a zine and an event in September, The Salon, I want to create a space where women can talk openly about the ups and downs around the stuff on our heads that grow up, not down.
It has been really satisfying seeing the rise of discussion about black hair in the past few years, through beautiful exhibitions like Ruth Sutoyé’s Bald Black Girl(s), books like Emma Dabiri’s Don’t Touch my Hair and campaigns like Project Embrace, who are fighting to get more black women with natural hair on billboards. Recent legislation has been passed in New York which sees prejudice based on hairstyles as racial discrimination. It has even leaked into a recent series of Queer Eye on Netflix (*spoiler alert*), where a woman with traction alopecia tears up seeing her newly styled natural hair.
The feelings we have about our hair, and our self-worth, are deeply entrenched. Over time, I believe that women will start to see that however we style it, our hair is our own. As my grandma once said, “be proud of your hair, it is your crowning glory, your treasure”.
Black Hair and Heritage is a grants project funded as part of Waltham Forest London Borough of Culture. On Thursday 26 September, Black Hair and Heritage will culminate in The Salon, an intimate evening of discussions, music, drag, poetry and a zine launch exploring Black women, femmes, hair and memory. Click here to attend.
To find out more about Korantema Anyimadu, visit www.korantema.com or find her on Instagram at @black.hair.stories.