Afro Hair – A thing of Beauty or a Curse?

Walking in those new shops in town, where your eyes go crazy by the view of such an amount of hair products for the African hair to make them straight. I am amazed by this new breed of products, where do they come from? why this need?.

By default, many African origin women alter their hair texture by straightening, either chemically or thermally. This is because natural hair carries many negative connotations.This tendency has baffled my imagination when I see my beautiful African origin friends try out all means to get their hair relaxed, hot brushed, and ironed to become straight. Here, I am when one curl will never form in my hair, no matter how much effort I put into it, and yet here are those pretty god gifted curls which are violated, pinned, tied to become as miss everybody.

From the curly hair also has its own variation ranging from very loose curls to the very tightly packed afro textured hair, curls never enjoyed so much of rejection from its owner, African, Hispanic, Arab, or Indian. Straight hair enjoys a higher prestige and is more widely accepted in both professional settings and everyday settings.

This social stigma attached to having curly hair has created an entire economy around hair care products and treatments to straighten hair. And yet, we find from the representation of the Brontë sisters and their contemporaries adorning their fineries to tight spiralling curls with candy coloured satin ribbons to look their best. Then why this two viewed society?

Its answers rest in the heavy and brutal colonisation of many countries in the African continent. No one ever chronicled whether they got a king or a queen of a tribe in their lot of newly converted or subservient workers, but all were hailed as captives, worse given the name of slaves. The deep stigma of this horrible past is deeply etched in the minds of all the generations since their freedom. And this stigma has now taken the ugly face of fashion, young teens know nothing but to iron their hair and hide any curls they can. Those with a stronger personality brave it to show their curls off. But most, dunk under the hot iron to conform. Some to a new gained status, some to blend in the crowd, others to look more acceptable in their work place, and sadly some make the dryness of the hair texture a good shield to hide behind and transform their hair.

However, all hope is not lost, as I have observed gladly, where there is a close group of those typed hair women, they get together and share their hair woes and tips. In always comes a hairdresser who is the wonder woman who can give respect and justice to the quality of hair. Out comes fabulously styled happy women to sport their ‘new’ hair with pride, as they feel pretty and acceptable once again. In the lot, little girls also get their plaits, and styles. They don’t understand the difference but they surely can get respite from the tugging at school and feel at peace that they look well kept. Sadly, the seed of stigma has already been sown.

China and Korea are making the hair products destined to such textured hair with tons of products so heavily loaded with chemicals that if all of them are poured into the rivers and soil, the planet will go barren for multiple hundreds of years. And yet no one is ringing the bell. While nowadays all straight hair products if containing Paraben or ammonia have a straight label to warn one off it ! Deforrestation is happening at an alarming rate, coconut palm trees are getting depleted by natural erosion from unkept neglected environment they strive in. And yet, they are the saviour of a whole planet’s woe, that of maintaining curls healthy, soft and moisturised. Pure, and straight natural coconut and Karite oil have always kept the hair in its fine state. Nature having a solution planted always next to us. But we fail to see it, our eyes shrouded in the search of the neon flashing chemicals.

My fascination to the curls and the African type hair started on the bench of my early years in Primary school. The girl sat next to me had the most beautiful uniform dark brown skin with ‘crepu’ textured hair. Mustering my courage to my curiosity, I asked her one day whether I could touch her hair. She said a magical ‘Yes’ That was it ! It never left my senses. I understood as a child that hair can be so soft, beautiful and as good as you could touch it for hours. It is a texture lesser known to men. The second reinforcement of such a beauty came to my adult being as a student of Fine Arts, while studying Mucha.

During Mucha’s Art Nouveau era, there were very few images of positive images of women of African descent that idealised their beauty. In contrast, the trend of Black caricature was common in American advertisements. Combining African American women and Mucha’s style has been created on the cover of the Supreme’s album “Let Sunshine In.” It features a full body of Diana Ross in the center with the faces of the other two members on either side. The women were donned with Mucha’s signature oversized flora and fauna. Each woman’s face has been rendered to reflect Mucha’s graphic style of flat shapes. And the composition and text was heavily ornamented with motifs.

Shepherd Fairey created an iconic image of Angela Davis, titled Afrocentric, that featured the subject looking upward with her signature Afro. The slogans “power & equality” and “power to the people” were shown in the poster with patterned, Eastern ornamentation that features the peace symbol. Fairey cleverly hid these symbols seamlessly into the design. This work was connected to my work in its using Black females to convey pride in natural hair.

Advertisements and popular media left a gaping dearth of images of women with natural hair that Black women wanted to emulate. However, during the civil rights era, the Afro was a popular symbol of cultural pride and political empowerment.

Will we, during this century cross the barrier of social prejudice to embrace social aesthetics of the our differences ?


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