African Hair, Perceptions and Identity

African Hair, Perceptions and Identity

One may think hair is grown for the sole purpose of keeping the head warm, but the truth is that it has always had a variety of conflicting undertones with a distinct bearing on our lives, especially in Africa. The most devastating effects stem from the slave trade, which inflicted deep emotional and psychological scars; the slave owners often described Black hair as “wooly” and likened Africans to animals.

In traditional African society, hairstyles had immense religious, cultural and social significance, indicating adherence to a set of beliefs or loyalty to a certain group. During the slave trade, the way hair was styled, played a major part in communicating age, marital status, ethnic identity, religion, wealth, and rank. Young Wolof girls of Senegal partially shaved their heads as an outward symbol they were not courting. Igbo wives, on losing their husbands shaved off all their hair in mourning. Giving a new look to the way African hair is styled and used as a medium of artistic expression are Laetitia Ky (Côte d’Ivoire) and Taiye Idahor (Nigeria), whose astonishing and daring works push the limits of Black hair while exploring unique ways it can be used as a medium.

Employing hair as a medium is no new feat, having been explored by many including late Japanese artist Nagi Noda (remembered for her audacious, flamboyant and animalistic hair hats); and Chengdu artist Zhang DeXuan (who weaves strands of human hair to create tiny portraits— a family technique handed down several generations). However, Ky and Idahor differ in their points of investigation.

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Instructively, Ky’s art is often described as more expressive because she creates her work with her own curly hair, attached to her scalp. Also incorporating hidden wire and some fabric, the young fashion designer is able to sculpt just about anything, from giant hands holding her phone for a selfie, or a tree complete with green leaves, to a small female dancer, the only limit seems to be her imagination.

Taiye Idahor on the hand employs hair as a medium in a similar, yet different approach. She works significantly within the concept of identity, using women’s hair as a visual language. In many of her works, it is a recurring motif which conveys different symbolic elements, as well as the many facets and contradictions of female identity.

Recently, Laetitia Ky went viral on social media for an original photo series where she sculpts her long hair into a variety of shapes, from human hands to bunny ears and even the African continent. While Ky’s art is definitely playful in nature, she however mentioned in an interview not long ago that it also carries a serious and important message she describes as a “powerful form of expression”, given the notion that the hair and hairstyles of African women have long been perceived as “not pretty enough”— a perception she hopes to change through her art. This she mentions in an email, ‘And with the return of natural hair to the Black community, hairstyles [have] become a beauty asset, a way of self-affirmation and [a] claim of its beauty. To use [these] hairstyles as means of expression is, therefore, [powerful] because it speaks to all its Black women who have had, for a long time, made believe that their hair was not dope enough…”

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In Idahor’s paintings, newsprint braids overflow from soft canvas and tracing paper surfaces, filled with secrets and memories. Her sculptures, drawings and collages, hair grows, blooms and transforms, creating new forms and identities. Even in her series ‘Hairvolution’, she creates visions of poetic figures in a dreamlike state between worlds. In an interview with Wana Wana, she describes the series as a personal journey into her own family history, trying to fill the space left by the paternal grandmother she never knew, but whose hair she inherited.

“This project began through a simple but important question that I have been confronted with since I was a child, Is this your hair? This question is asked because my hair is black and wavy. This perennial question has elicited a journey of self-discovery of which the point of departure is a focus on my family history. It started with a series of meetings and conversations with my father and mother asking questions about Ayie, my paternal grandmother whose identity has remained elusive and from whom my hair characteristics seem to have originated. As I reflect daily on the importance of my parent’s memories, its fragility becomes increasingly more apparent. A change of location or death is no longer a criterion for a disappearing history as is the case with Ayie”.

Though both styles of artistic expression are unconventional, it will surely go a long way in changing the perception of African hair.


Oyindamola Olaniyan holds a in Botany from Lagos State University. Broadly experienced in this area, her core expertise includes social media management, content development and brand identity.

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