The Studio Museum in Harlem | March 26 – June 28, 2015
Braids, wisps, tufts, and beads are combed, coiled, and stacked in Salon Style, the Studio Museum in Harlem’s exhibition on African and African American hair and fingernails as sites of creative expression. Organized by Senior Curatorial Assistant Hallie Ringle, the show presents works by several artists from the collection that mine identity in various bodily forms. Race, gender, class, and power are invoked in ways both playful and serious. Many works hint at that gravity specifically within the context of this show, and it is in their relation to one another that each work establishes its full range of connotations. Salon Style commands an astute read on how bodies function in and out of the beautification complex, noting the very complexities of that complex, and asking the viewer to consider how hair and fingernails exist in social spaces beyond the salon.
Thick, straight black hair covers a large canvas in Nadine Robinson’s “Self Portrait #4 (ME)” (2002), where wisps dangle off the edge like tassels. Robinson’s flat canvas exudes a heaviness in both uniformity and scale. The vertical locks resemble quick brushstrokes, with hair standing in for paint. Her use of real human hair adds to the fray. The work, too, seems eerily alive. Taking it as a self-portrait, one realizes that the hair is likely a synecdochal stand-in for the artist herself. Did the artist indeed wear the hair that became this work? Is it a part of her body or a work of art? Johnson subverts the notion of self-portraiture, including a fragment of her own physical self, rather than its likeness.
Elsewhere, a commanding tower of woven artificial hair atop a wig stand is presented as an architectural form. Meschac Gaba’s “Lipstick Building” (2004) mirrors the midtown Manhattan skyscraper, named for its cylindrical resemblance to a lipstick tube. “Lipstick Building” weaves blue, green, and black micro braids into a grid, tightly layering hair sections into checkered patterns that recall the glinting surface of the building’s glass exterior. Coins dangle from the long frayed bangs, an unconventional hair ornament that obstructs vision as it connotes wealth and greed. Atop a head, it would make an impressive, if impractical crown. Gaba’s “Lipstick Building” emerges from his Tresses series, whichjuxtaposes the architecture of the Manhattan skyline with the landmarks of his native Benin, explores the cultural role of the hair braider, and highlights the ways hair and architecture are signified in global visual culture.
Nearby, Nigerian photographer J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere’s black-and-white photograph, “Ogun Pari” (2000), captures the back of a head to reveal a multi-textured twisted hairdo whose intricacy and bound precision resembles both the contours of an architectural foundation and a whimsical sculpture. Glossy, protruding coils elegantly extend and descend from a curly scalp, producing wrapped undulations that mimic a halo’s curve. The elaborate coiffure is arresting, captured under Ojeikere’s heavy studio lighting. The artist has documented women’s hairstyles in Nigeria since the country gained independence from Britain in 1960, producing an archive of over 1,000 diverse styles. His photographs visually preserve the individuality and creativity that emerged after independence. This hairstyle and others like it ascend to heights beyond personal expression, manifesting as veritable markers of national pride.
Salon Style also explores the commodified role of styled black hair and its various accessories in the Black Pride movement of the 1970s and how that commodification endures in more recent pop culture. In 2007, Hank Willis Thomas presented a 1970 advertisement with the text redacted. The work points to the systems of white appropriation in the photograph of an attractive black woman with an afro from the 1970 advertisement, “Who can Say No to a Gorgeous Brunette?” (1970/2007). Photographer Dawoud Bey’s accompanying wall text explains that the image hinges upon its title, whose use of the phrase “gorgeous brunette” to describe a black woman with an afro is fraught, both in its time and in 2007, in that it is typically used to describe white women. If this “gorgeous brunette” intends to sell her multicultural viewership an afro wig or hair product, whose hair (and ultimately whose body) is at stake? Although today the woman’s powerful gaze undermines the dated ad copy, this work nevertheless foregrounds the cultural appropriation, and ultimate misinterpretation, of black signifiers.
Politicized afro-textured hair also appears in works by greats from the museum collection such as Lorna Simpson. Her floating head figure in the collage “Ebony Heads (Big Yellow)” (2011) sports a natural afro style. Simpson’s cutout of a smiling black female face with relaxed blond bangs rests beneath an expansive cloud of hair rendered in ink. Simpson paints the hair sunshine yellow—joyful and bright—a color decidedly not blond, but certainly wild. In Simpson’s 2011 – 12 Ebony Collages series, she endows cutout black faces with similar majestic multihued hairdos, rife with swirls, ombrés, and visible brush marks. Here Simpson removes works from the realm of advertising, replacing these Ebony magazine models’ real hairstyles with fantastical floating hair forms. One wonders what hairstyles she discards in favor of their cascading, cloud-like, or otherwise radiant replacements. The contrast between the real (the Ebony magazine photograph cutouts) and the imagined (Simpson’s sensational hairstyles) acknowledges hair not simply as a site of individuality, but as a site of control in culture at large.
The fingernail ornamentation included in Salon Style broach themes of femininity, especially within sports. Deborah Willis contrasts a muscular, stereotypically masculine body with a classically feminine red manicure in her photograph “Bodybuilder #4” (1998). The athlete’s broad shoulders, thick arms, and slim waist suggest a male form, yet her red nails and shiny bathing suit straps suggest otherwise. Nail polish evinces femininity in this seemingly gender-fluid body. Pamela Council’s diverse and delightful nail sculptures likewise engage the role of nails within sports. In “Flo Jo World Record Nails” (2012), Council uses fingernail extensions and sculpted acrylic powder to create sculptures commemorating Olympic track and field champion Flo Jo’s elaborate red, white, blue, and gold dotted and striped manicures. The artist glues nails together to create swooping forms that resemble both Flo Jo’s running course at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the whirling movement of a runner’s legs. Although these works place nail polish well outside the salon, the show overlooks other social themes. In light of the recent New York Times coverage of nail salon worker abuse, issues of the workers’ labor rights, the class divide between the manicurist and manicured, and even health concerns associated with inhaling salon fumes seem timely, relevant, and—unfortunately—unexplored in this exhibition.
Salons offer services that invite the public to alter, improve, or transform their bodies. This grouping of works embrace, reject, and reinterpret that system, asking viewers to reflect on how salons make or unmake identities and collective styles. The salon has also acted historically as a site of discussion, where individuals gather to gain knowledge. Salon Style likewise creates this very space, inviting audiences to view, interpret, and learn.