Sunday, 17 August 2008

Crowning Glory - Part Deux - contemporary African hair

Apparently, the black hair industry in North America alone is worth approximately $4 billion, possibly on par with the "ethnic" cosmetics industry. I suppose this is only a natural progression from the not-so-long ago past where the use of oils, dyes such as red cam wood, perfumes such as lavender, frankincense and sandalwood and ornaments such as beads, shells, seeds, coral, amber were ubiquitously used traditionally to adorn African coiffures. Sisal fibres used to make braids have now been replaced with synthetic extensions of various textures as well as human hair. Wigs, which have been identified as far back as the time of the ancient Egyptians, are now similarly synthetic or convincingly human hair.

Interestingly, although there has been a proffesionalisation of hairdressers and the use of more sophisticated tools to manipulate and negotiate hairstyles (with the exception of the irreplaceable afro comb), unlike the tradition of having hair styled by a friend or relative, hair dressers and barbers alike have maintained the social aspect of creating a space for exchange between stylists and clients. Today hairdressing salons typically nourish an environment for gossip and banter.

The West has inevitably influenced the evolution of African hairstyles and headdress. The now ubiquitous headscarf was in part linked to prudish / modest Victorian (late 19th Century) values, as well as straightening with the use of heat or chemicals. Many hairstyles have persisted and others been fashionably created. Just like the fashion industry, the hairstyles that are in vogue ebb and flow. A jheri curl wearer may be subject to rib-tickling taunts about smearing windows and staining pillows, whereas back in the day it was the “fresh” style of the 80s and early 90s. I confess I was a cool cat back then with my wet curls ☺ Although not so much with my cornrows, which are certainly more fashionable now than they were during my childhood in the 80s.

There is a vast amount of discourse around hair of African ancestry – from its artistic attributes (see beautiful images by JD Okhai Ojeikere; inset by Samuel Fosso) (double hat tip Kamau), to its role in shaping identity, to the rights and wrongs of wearing it natural or chemically processed, but to cite a few. A powerful element of self-expression from the choice of hairstyle that cannot be evaded is that hair may be used as a means to convey a political message. The legendary 1960s Civil Rights / Black Consciousness Movement that emanated from the USA was inexorably linked to the grand and perpetually fashionable afro. African men and women in my parents’ generation wore afros – some to express their fashion sense and others to express the feeling of pride in newly decolonised lands. As a child, I clearly remember the black power fist plastic afro combs that were ubiquitous in Kenya, although at the time I didn’t appreciate the statement they made.

The same could be said for locs (aka dreadlocks), which were previously strongly associated with being a Rastafarian or a rebel, such as the Mau Mau freedom fighters against British colonial rule in Kenya. Today in Kenya, despite the earlier association with the Mungiki (a now illegal politico-religious group), it is apparent that society is becoming more tolerant to this choice of hairstyle, with many hairdressers in Nairobi tending to locs, which are being increasingly worn by men and women alike. Again, just like the ‘fro, locs are being worn as a message of Black Consciousness or simply a trendy fashion-sense.

Despite their renaissance, unfortunately, I still hear of corporate employers in North America, Europe and Africa who have a problem with the choice of these natural hairstyles despite their neat appearance. It’s quite remarkable how hair is so strongly weaved into our socio-political fabric that it evokes such strong reactions and resistance to the transformation of hairstyles' image in people's minds. Regardless, African hair will remain a hot topic of discussion for a long time to come. As far as I am concerned how I wear my hair is an expression of self, but it does not define who I am.

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