Plaits, Princesses + Pink Moisturiser
For black women, hair is often riddled with a mixture of emotions: fear and joy, pain and sisterhood. This new series of striking portraits and stories curated by Korantema Anyimadu celebrates black hair in all its glory.
In 2006, singer-songwriter India Arie sang the words “I am not my hair”, as a bold renunciation of the fact that her hair – and how it was perceived – had been a source of tension throughout her life. In the song, she explains how she tried to forge an identity through various hairstyles, concluding with the message that we – black women specifically – are so much more than the thing that grows out of our heads. Yet, the emotional journey India experiences with her hair is one many black women recognise. Although hair can often be a source of mixed emotions for many black women (the fear of being perceived a certain way, the struggle to fit in with mainstream beauty standards as young girls), it is also a source of joy, sisterhood, and unbreakable bonds between generations of women. It is this entire experience of black women’s relationship with hair, London-based curator Korantema Anyimadu celebrates in her exhibition Plaits, Princesses + Pink Moisturiser now on at the Migration Museum until June 2019. The exhibitions features the portraits of remarkable black British women and their personal stories, anecdotes and tales of how their hair has forged a part of their identity.
Tell me about your personal relationship with hair and what inspired this project?
I decided to start Plaits, Princesses + Pink Moisturiser after writing my Masters dissertation on hair and heritage back in 2017. I interviewed 50 women about their experiences with hair and how it had affected their relationship with identity, beauty and family. Doing research for my thesis was the first time I was forced to actively reflect on my experiences growing up. My mum worked a couple of jobs when my sister and I were younger. The only time I really remember her spending one on one time with us was when she braided our hair on Friday nights (always in front of EastEnders). I think of that as a labour of love now. Even though hair can often be the focus of a lot of negativity and body policing – like being told you look ‘unprofessional’ if you wear your hair out in an afro – hair care is also a space where relationships are nurtured with the other women in your family. I wanted this project to cover all those aspects, and that's why it was really important for me to interview the women alongside taking their portraits.
For this project, you photographed and chatted to some trailblazing black women. How did you go about selecting who to feature?
I reached out to black women and femmes who I really admire. For example, Dawn Butler is never afraid to speak up in parliament, Otegha Uwagba has built an incredible network from scratch that supports women, Son of a Tutu is making waves as a proud Nigerian and a drag queen, and Amina leads a social justice choir for black women and femmes called Nawi Collective. I grew up in Leyton (east London), so I especially wanted to highlight women who had a connection to my area, like players from Leyton Orient Women’s Football Club, and those who are often overlooked, like local foster carers and nurses.
What was your creative process for the photographs ?
All the portraits were shot by an amazing photographer Nana Ama Owusu-Ansah. She's very talented at capturing people's personalities. We wanted each photo to be an intimate and proud representation of each woman. We met everyone individually for about two hours for a long chat before we began shooting. I asked them to choose an object that reminded them of their hair and used that as a focal point when I interviewed them. The objects they chose were varied and included things like sports medals, old photos and tights. I held an exhibition displaying these items alongside the portraits last year. I think spending that quality time with each woman made it easier to capture their true likeness. We photographed some of them with their chosen object, some in their favourite place in Waltham Forest and others in a place they felt reflected their personality.
What do you want people to take away from this project?
I want people to appreciate the conflicts, tensions and joys that are a part of our experience with hair. Growing up as a black woman in this country can be tiring. We have to spend so much time trying to fit in or stand out, appease our family members and employers. You can't help but wear all these tensions on your body, and it filters down to something that may seem as insignificant as the stuff growing out of your head. In the same way, I hope people can see the joy, pride and beauty that is intertwined with hair and the unique stories it holds.