Thursday, 31 July 2008

Crowning Glory – Part One – a brief note on the history of African hair

Hair has been a unavoidably dominant feature of African art and culture since time immemorial. Hairstyles have been coiffured as aesthetic expressions much like other temporary adornments such as body paint, which bear a sharp contrast to permanent expressions such as scarification or skull elongation that was practised by the Mangbetu people of what is now Democratic Republic of Congo.

Typically, in many communities, far beyond a tool for an individual’s expression of self, symbolic and distinctive hairstyles were also used to reflect specific characteristics such as age, sex, social and religious status. Hair in these contexts is elaborately explored within specific communities sparsed across the African continent in a fascinating book whose title is derived from an exhibition, Hair in African Art and Culture (available from Amazon) in the Museum for African Art in New York City. This beautiful and enriching, glossy, photo-essay coffee table book successfully encapsulates the rich variety of hair arrangements in both men and women, boys and girls, that have had a central place in African life and art. The blurry lines and intimate entwinement of life and art are presented by photography and sculpture and elaborated with text, including anthropological accounts.

It is a fascinating read - Within various groups spanning the African continent, hairstyles were significant as they were used to mark and express together with meaningful cries or ululation significant life-changing events such as mourning or initiations. Hair had a voice and the eyes in the community “heard” the message of the wearer. For instance, in women thick long tresses symbolised fertility and strength; disheveled hair a state of disharmony such as a bereavement; and plaited hair a commitment to social order. Interestingly, the fact that hair was entrusted to another person, usually of the same sex, created and flourished a social bond between the stylist and the wearer. Something that undoubtedly carries on today.

Hair was also used to breath life into masks, that were used in ritual. The same sacrity was given to hair used in juju (i.e. charms) that could potentially be used to harm or protect the owner. Consequently, hair was disposed of with great care.

My next post will be on the somewhat contentious subject of contemporary African hair.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Interruption of the Radio Silence with Old Wise Words

I was recently excitedly reacquainted with a book I had when I was in primary school aged 10: Swahili Sayings from Zanzibar by S.S. Farsi. I’ve always been intrigued by the use of methali (the Swahili word for proverbs) as well as metaphors as they add flavour to speech. They stir up the creative mind, reminiscent of pidgin or sheng, whose words or phrases, when traced back to the root, usually reveal a rather clever deduction.

In the bilingual preface, Farsi acknowledges the need for recording of customs and traditions before they are forgotten.

Proverbs are very useful for inculcating moral lessons…They are indeed disappearing very quickly. Until recently, children were not allowed out-of-doors after sunset…For the period between sunset and bedtime they sat indoors and enjoyed listening to the old women who told them riddles and fairy stories. These stories always had a moral and educational purpose.

As I flipped through this small but significant treasure, a methali caught my eye:

Kimya kingi kina mshindo mkuu.
A long silence is followed by a mighty noise.

Coincidence or prophetic?
We shall soon find out.