African hair braiding is a technique steeped in history and tradition and has long been a source of inspiration and curiosity. While the recent natural hair movement has brought about a huge change in the way women of African decent style and protect their hair, braiding is a practice that holds centuries-old symbolic and sociological meaning, an important fact that Lagos-based Californian photographer Medina Dugger hopes to highlight with her latest photography project, Chroma: An Ode to J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere’. Enthused by the work of the late Nigerian photographer J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere’, who extensively documented thousands of beautifully intricate Nigerian hairstyles over a 40-year period, Dugger’s new ongoing photography series is a modern and colour-coded adaptation of Ojeikere’s black and white sculptural images.
“The series recontextualises some of Ojeikere’s (and other) hairstyles to highlight current and imagined hair designs,” says Dugger, explaining that the idea for the project came about after consulting on a book about the late photographer’s work published by the Centre of Contemporary Art, Lagos. “I learned Ojeikere’s images represented much more than style, they recorded an important part of Nigeria’s history.” Dugger also notes that Ojeikeres work marked a “return to traditional hairstyles over hair straightening and wigs, which became common, post-Colonial rule. She believed he did this in a very personal and methodical way, stating that “This link between style and history really fascinated me.”
Keen to continue the documentation of Nigerian hair, Dugger aims to catalogue these ancient hairdos through a fanciful and modern lens. “I’ve noticed women in Lagos incorporating colourful threads and weaves more and more,” explains Dugger. “The availability of colourful hair extensions and wools in local markets today has led to unique variations on threading and braiding techniques, providing new interpretations to an age-old practice.”
Although braided hairstyles are becoming increasingly trendier, their anthropological significance is what those passionate about appropriation are intent on preserving as African women’s relationship with braiding often begins in childhood and symbolises key life events, social status and inherited family and tribal traditions. “African hair remains a very political issue.” Dugger adds. “In our increasingly connected world, cultures and traditions can become diluted and lost. I would love for these images to honour past practices, while also highlighting the changes that are happening.”