Akua. All photos by Nana Ama

Evocative Portraits Exploring Black Femmes' Relationship with Hair

In the new photography show "Plaits, Princesses + Pink Moisturizer," Black women and nonbinary people from the UK talk about how their hair influences their identity and everyday lives.

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Nov 7 2018, 4:43pm

Akua. All photos by Nana Ama

When Korantema Anyimadu was a kid, her mom worked multiple jobs. But she always set aside Friday evenings to braid her daughter's hair—it was the only time that the pair spent one-on-one together.

"At the time, it was the pits, because I was impatient, it was painful, and it was uncomfortable sitting on the floor in between her legs for two hours," the curator and charity officer remembers now. "I now appreciate the time she made to do that—it must have been a labour of love for her."

Throughout Anyimadu's life, though, her hair has also been the "battleground of a ton of microaggressions," she says. Growing up, an elementary school classmate called her plaits "devil horns." A man once tried to pick a fight with her after she made him stop plunging his hands into her hair. She's lost count of how many times people described her hair as "weird."

Anyimadu held on to these memories while curating her new London show, Plaits, Princesses + Pink Moisturizer. Along with her cousin, photographer Nana Ama, Anyimadu shot and interviewed 25 Black women, nonbinary people, and femmes about how their hair influences their identity and everyday lives. "I asked each person to choose an object that reminded them of their hair and used that as a focal point when I interviewed them," Anyimadu explains.

The objects—which include hair extensions, a hot comb, and Dax pomade—are now on exhibit as part of the show. "That was really important to me, because even though the objects are really different, each story is equally intimate and unique to that person."

Labour politician Dawn Butler, Women Who founder and Little Black Book author Otegha Uwagba, and drag king Wesley Dykes are all featured in the show. But Londoner Anyimadu was also keen to highlight less recognized people whom she admired in her neighborhood, including local soccer players, a choir leader, and one nurse who worked in her local hospital. "It's a homage, to those people who are silently getting shit done!" Anyimadu says.

Below, check out some of the photos and interview testimonies from Plaits, Princesses + Pink Moisturizer.

Nana Ama photo of Labour MP Dawn Butler
Dawn. All photos by Nana Ama

Dawn, MP
Hot Comb

"The hot comb is symbolic of my journey; of spending years in the hairdressers, waiting the whole day to get my hair done because everyone was given the ten o’clock appointment, wasting time and having my hair blow dried to death. There was no thinking or reflecting time because of all the noise and the hustle and bustle. Since I’ve had my hair natural, there’s more quality time. It gives me more opportunity to talk, to spend time with myself and the people around me. It’s a time that often doesn’t exist in the family unit anymore.

"When you look back over history, the times where stories are shared, and remedies are passed down through generations, it’s often when you are sitting between the legs of your sister, your mother or your grandma. As an MP I meet lots of people and sometimes people do say things to me about my hair. Some say I should have my hair straight, more European, to be more palatable and acceptable. I’ve had my hair natural for over 20 years, and loc’d for two years, and I have no intention of putting chemicals in it again."

Nana Ama photo of two Black women
Gloria and her mother Joyce

Gloria, museum officer
Headscarf

"Having my hair done was a sad, sad experience! My hair is 4C and tight, so getting a comb through it is hard work but Mommy is the only person I would go to, to braid my hair. Mommy would start on a Thursday before her night shift, plait half my head on a Friday, so that by Sunday it was usually finished. I used to cry when I only had half a head done. Sometimes we would bring our friends over to get their hair done too, so Mommy was basically doing our hair on rotation. I love having my hair in different styles. I like my natural hair just as much as I like my wigs and headscarves; that versatility is part of the beauty of Black hair."

Joyce, foster carer
Duku

"I had surgery in 2006 and the treatment made all my hair fall out, so now it’s really short. At secondary school back home, we had to have shaved heads. The school made us do that because having braids or long hair might make us distracted from school work. After school, I got my hair relaxed straight away. I used to go to the salon and have lots of different hairstyles before my surgery. I wear my dukus a lot—when I’m rushing about I wear this black one because it’s so easy. It was busy at home because I worked two cleaning jobs and had a third night job at a Sainsburys warehouse. Cooking and cleaning for five children, and doing their hair felt like a full-time job too. Of course, they never helped with the housework."

Nana Ama photo of Otegha Uwagba
Otegha

Otegha, Women Who founder and Little Black Book author
The Holy Trinity

"Blue Magic, Sulfur 8, and Pink Oil Moisturizer were the classic trio, the Holy Trinity. They were used consistently by my mum when she did my hair, which obviously is not good for you but we knew less about it then. The color of the packaging was so exciting as a child, but then when you opened it—ugh, the smell! I hated the way it smelt so unnatural and artificial, and the way it rubbed off on your pillow and left a stain on your headboard. Now I go to the hairdressers to get my hair done and don't touch those products anymore. The relationship you have with a good hairdresser is sacred, and when you find a good one you don’t let them go. Sometimes I don’t even look in the mirror before I leave my hairdresser’s house. That’s how much I trust her."

Nana Ama photo of Djmila, Asha and Destinée
Djamila, Destinée, Asha

Asha, student
Bobbles

"I used to love wearing bobbles in my hair. They hurt like hell whenever they snapped but it was worth it. They’re iconic! I used to have my hair in four braids, and these would be at the bottom of each braid. My mom did my hair mostly, and sometimes my dad did too. They taught me to always be proud of my Blackness but sometimes I do feel like I’m too Black for white people, or too white for Black people. My mum has long, beautiful hair but she doesn’t really care about it much, she just says what will happen will happen. I think I’m like that too. My hair colour changes a lot—it’s been orange red pink, purple, blue, green, blonde, peach, and teal."

Destinée, student
Medals

"These are my most recent sports medals. The main time you’ll see my hair out is when I’m doing sport. It’s kind of a difficult decision for me because I usually wear a scarf, so my hair always has to look its best when I’m playing. Your appearance is key—it’s like Serena Williams, you’re not going to see her lacking when she’s on the field. The thing about girls who wear headscarves is that people think you don’t care about your hair because no one can see it, but there’s a big community of Muslim girls who care about their hair. I’ve done Brazilian blow dry, braids to my knees (inspired by Nicky Minaj) and I’ve dyed my hair too. The modesty around wearing a headscarf is also about showing your hair to the people you love. It’s sacred, and sports is sacred to me. My main sports are cheerleading, basketball, football, running and athletics, badminton, netball, rounders, and I am sports leader at school too."

Djamila, student
Wide Toothed Comb

"You don’t just have one type of comb. I have three; a wide toothed, a bristly comb and a brush. My mother always did my hair. She worked as a hairdresser for a long time, so I’ve never actually been to a salon. When my mum used to straighten my hair, it would sizzle, and she would casually blow away the smoke. You know she did a good job when the fire alarms go off! I remember this one time in my playground, there I was, a Portuguese immigrant fresh off the boat, and all the girls were in a line braiding each other’s hair. I had to go to the back because no one could braid mine. I’ve understood a lot going through school. There was an incident in Spanish class where our teacher showed us a picture of a festival where blackface was involved. I had to call her out on it, but I also didn’t want to fulfill the stereotype of the angry Black woman. The teacher got defensive and made it out like it was my fault."

Wesley Dykes photo

Wesley Dykes, drag king
"I Am Not My Hair"

"When that song came out, I was not in a good place with my queerness. I was mostly raised in Nigeria until secondary school and I was in a context where I wasn’t this enough, or that enough. I was intrigued by the song and the idea that so much of who I was as a person was defined by what I looked like on the outside, in relation to my gender or sexuality. I like that the song is about how the outer shell is so irrelevant to what you are inside.

"I think hair is very important to my identity, on a surface level I have psoriasis on my scalp which was stress induced when my dad died when I was 21, so I’m always hyper aware of that. But also, I’m loc-ing my hair at the moment, and it’s a process that requires me to be extremely patient. My hair is a physical reminder all the time to chill. My favourite lyric is 'I looked in the mirror for the first time and saw' because I think at that point, that was not happening at all for me and I couldn’t wait to get to that point."

Nana Ama photo of Leyton Orient Women’s Football Club members Lisa and Chanel
Lisa and Chanel

Lisa, Leyton Orient Women’s Football Club player
The Simpsons

"Up until I was 11, Sundays were the day that I got my hair done. I would sit in front of The Simpsons and my mom would comb my hair. It was difficult for her because my hair was so thick. I got my hair relaxed when I was 12, as a special birthday present. Now I don’t do much with it, I usually just wear it straight and tie it back which is useful for playing football. I still watch The Simpsons now. I actually watched one the other day and thought I hadn’t seen it before, but by the end I was like… oh yeah, of course I have. My favourite episode is the one where Lisa becomes a vegetarian; the family go to a zoo, Lisa meets a lamb and then she starts seeing the lamb everywhere. I’ve seen that episode way too many times."

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Chanel, Leyton Orient Women’s Football Club player
Dax

"Mum did my hair till I was 18. She was really rough—old school Caribbean style—you know, you can’t put your hands on your hair or she’ll smack you with the comb. When I was 18, I used to put water in my hair to make it into a bigger afro at the back. It was an ex-girlfriend who told me to do that. She was older than me so of course I listened to her, even though she had a weave on and didn’t do it herself. Doing that to my hair cut it up so bad, and my hair was so dry that I started using Dax again. My mom used to use it all the time when we were younger. Moms know!"

Nana Ama photo of Sicgmone
Sicgmone

Sicgmone, fashion designer and lecturer
Extensions

"From the age of five my hair was always in extensions. I wouldn’t leave the house without having braids in my hair because I didn’t feel pretty. A lot of the girls at school had their hair in extensions—we used to do each other’s hair at break time. One girl would charge £2.50 and she would do your hair in cornrows. Being at a school that was predominantly Black, there wasn’t any othering because of your hair, but the prettier and more popular girls who the boys fancied were usually mixed race or light skinned and had straighter hair texture. At the time, we didn’t have a term for it, but you could call it colorism now. It’s funny, it takes a while to articulate your experience as a Black woman. I’ve experienced microaggressions in the past, like people saying you’re really pretty for a Black girl or coming up and stroking my hair."

Nana Ama photo of Akua
Akua

Akua, postgrad student
Tights

"When we were kids, me and my sister used to put tights on our head, pretend we had long hair, and play grown-ups. Now, I wear tights to protect my hair, which definitely came from my mom. She used to pay for us to get our hair steamed at the hairdressers. If we didn't wear tights to bed and messed up our hair, she would get sooo mad. I would always do it, except later when I started staying at my friend's houses when I was a teenager—I was a bit too embarrassed."

Nana Ama photo of Amina

Amina, housing activist and choir leader
Denham Brush

"Mom would brush my hair with a Denham brush and I looked just like Diana Ross. She's Chinese Singaporean and my dad’s Kenyan. Dad liked my hair out, but I think my mom wanted to contain it. She often said it was hard to manage. I was really into rock and indie music when I was 16, and it was a really white scene. I wanted my hair to move like white people’s hair, to have weight because when you have hair like mine and you’re headbanging it just doesn’t work. I felt so out of place, so I straightened it. I think my hair is quite important to my identity. People have called my hair different things over time—they’ve said it’s wild, loud—and I think I’ve internalized some of that. I guess I’m quite a loud person and my personality is wrapped up in my hair."

Plaits, Princesses + Pink Moisturizer is on until 10 November at Locus of Walthamstow, 1 Chingford Rd, E17 4PW, London, UK. More info can be found at www.Korantema.com/exhibition.

Editor's note: Asha's quote has been shortened to protect the privacy of her family.