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Annahstasia Enuke
courtesy of Annahstasia Enuke

Nike model Annahstasia Enuke on the backlash against her underarm hair

TextAlex Peters

The artist and musician talks music, beauty standards and strangers having opinions on her body

When Nike put out their new campaign last week, they may not have known the storm it would cause, although they probably could have guessed. When Swedish model and artist Arvida Byström posed for Adidas Originals’ Superstar range in 2017 with unshaved legs she received death threats, while Ashley Armitage’s campaign for razor brand Billie featuring women’s body hair prompted strongly negative reactions.

The image in question here, featured Nigerian-American visual artist and musician Annahstasia Enuke with her arm raised, revealing a small patch of hair on her armpits. While many praised the brand for showing visible underarm hair, as we know women existing in their natural state is often met with outrage and the backlash soon arrived, with many commenters expressing disgust at the body hair.

“To be honest, I was mostly baffled that it rose any debate at all,” Enuke says of the reaction. “I don’t see why it’s anyone’s opinion what I do with my body and I definitely wasn’t expecting people to be so ruffled by it.”

Dealing with others feeling entitled to having opinions about her body is not something that is new to Enuke. Her recent piece of performance art, “Mutual Agreement,” which sees the musician shave her head on camera, came about after she grew tired of the comments and requests she would get about her hair while modelling. “I experienced such an overt disrespect of the time and labour that goes into textured hair. Clients would ask me to take out my braids, put in my braids, switch from braids to locs, cut it and dye it pink.... every week a different request,” she says. “At some point, I was so frustrated with feeling like I didn’t own my own aesthetic choices I plotted to shave it off in a fairly dramatic way.”

Here we spoke with Enuke about her art and the complex relationships we can have with our appearance and body.

Tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up? How has your background shaped who you are as a person?
Annahstasia Enuke: I'm from Los Angeles, California. I’m Nigerian-American. My mom is white and from the Mid-west, she has Polish/German heritage and my dad is Nigerian who spent his youth between England and Nigeria. They’re both fashion designers and have amazing artistic minds, so my upbringing was very constructive in terms of my artistic development. My standards were set high for myself and for them. I remember when I was 5 years old, I did a painting of a poinsettia and my dad liked it so much he bought it from me for a dollar and said he would buy any piece he liked off of me. He never bought another one! But me holding my breath for that taught me the valuable lesson of standing up for what I create, despite “market demand”.

I was raised in a bit of a cultural bubble. What my parents brought into the home is what I learned. This hodgepodge of Nigerian, Midwestern, Asian, and European cultures. The things my parents enjoyed were usually not informed directly by our physical surroundings as we moved around LA.

Do you remember the first time you were conscious of your appearance?
Annahstasia Enuke: I think it was 4th grade. I had terrible eyes already and I was begging my mom for contacts and a relaxer for my hair. I was one of a few black girls at a mostly Korean and Filipino school. And I guess I had some sense that I wanted to feel more comfortable and fit into my surroundings. I remember the day I showed up to summer school with my press out and contacts. I felt like a new bitch. I think that was the first time I looked in the mirror and experienced “dressing up” from my natural state.

How has your relationship with beauty and body image evolved?
Annahstasia Enuke: I think I’m at this point where I’m rapidly returning to my childhood comfort with my body. When I was really young, I was quite the centre of attention. Always telling stories and bringing new friends home from the park. Apparently, I could rap back then and was a better dancer. As I grew up, I got more and more self-conscious and afraid of my expression. It’s hard to point to any particular oppression. But at around 20, I realised how dulled I felt in many aspects of my life.

Have there been times where you’ve felt insecure? How did you overcome this?
Annahstasia Enuke: Yes, I think everyone meets insecurity at some point. In myself, I’ve observed that it usually arises when I know I haven’t done my best, or I haven’t arrived in peak form. But the lesson I’ve learned is to be more patient with my development and allowing it to be visible. No one is truly put together, everyone is working on something and that little reminder makes it a lot easier to just show up and be who you are that day.

What is it about experimenting with your look that you enjoy so much?
Annahstasia Enuke: I love the reintroduction to people I already know and the possibility of meeting strangers as someone I’ve never been. I don’t usually change my look too drastically, but the subtle changes definitely dictate which aspects of my personality shine through. It’s nice to see those versions of myself come out into the open.

Is beauty something you try to capture in your visual work or something that you reject? What is your relationship to “beauty”?
Annahstasia Enuke: I don’t think I pursue any pre-existing ideas of beauty in my work, just what appeals directly to me. Forms inspired by nature, certain colours I find to be luxurious, certain textures I believe to be soothing. I believe beauty is comfort in the soul. So I create with that directive of calming mine and I suppose that’s where the beauty lies.

In your new single “Mutual Agreement" you address your relationship with your hair and shave your head in the video. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired the song and what it means to you?  
Annahstasia Enuke: “Mutual Agreement” was a piece of performance art I’d been considering for a while and it’s following track "Sacred Bull" provided a perfect bed for the prose to lie in. I had been trying to grow my hair out just because I was sick of dying it and wanted to experiment with braids and locs and other hairstyles I didn’t have access to with short hair. But in the process of growing it, I was also modelling full time and I experienced such an overt disrespect of the time and labour that goes into textured hair.

Clients would ask me to take out my braids, put in my braids, switch from braids to locs, cut it and dye it pink.... every week a different request, some I acquiesced to and others I said no. But at some point, I was so frustrated with feeling like I didn’t own my own aesthetic choices so I plotted to shave it off in a fairly dramatic way. Hair does hold burdens, holds emotions and memories holds the people that touched it and the air that carried through it. So when you shave it all off you just feel lighter, freer of your yesterday.

We often tie emotional upheaval in our lives to drastic hair decisions. Why do you think we have such an emotional relationship with our hair?
Annahstasia Enuke: I think that dynamic is about control. As women, our hair is a huge signifier to our identity, whether we like it or not people feel they can make accurate judgments based on how we style it. Which can feel very suffocating, feeling like you have to maintain a certain veneer. That ability to take that perception into your own hands is often a simple and relatively independent way to liberate oneself from what event caused the growth you experience. Hair is like our exoskeleton we outgrow it, shed and produce a new one.

Tell us a bit about your Sacred Bull project which encompasses both visuals and sound. What was the concept behind it? What does the symbol of the bull mean to you?  
Annahstasia Enuke: The concept was to lay down a home base from which to grow artistically and publicly. I wanted to introduce myself in the way that I’m meeting myself as an artist for the first time. I’ve always been an artist, but I think something happens when you break the veil of delivering something to the public and standing behind it. It makes a dull thing sacred. That’s why I chose the title Sacred Bull. Besides being a Taurus, I’ve always resonated with the Bull energy: peaceful, collected and free roaming, but fierce and violent once stirred. I see a lot of myself in those descriptors and the sacred aspect of Sacred Bull is my ownership of who I am, uplifting myself and believing in myself. Adorning myself in gold and giving myself power. Knowing that my peacefulness is not a weakness and that my fury is if anything the secret to my ambition. The whole project was really just about a deep self-acceptance.

You recently featured in a Nike campaign that caused some strong reactions. How did it make you feel to see the comments?
Annahstasia Enuke: To be honest, I was mostly baffled that it rose any debate at all. I don’t see why it’s anyone’s opinion what I do with my body and I definitely wasn’t expecting people to be so ruffled by it. I mostly found it hilarious, the media circus around it. Especially when there are some seriously heartbreaking and seriously beautiful things happening in the world all at once. It’s a bit weird for international media to focus on women’s body hair of all trivial things.

I do of course appreciate the support people offered, but the whole drama was so left of field I barely paid it any attention other than to screenshot the particularly juicy insults I got. It was a good laugh.

Why do you think body hair on women causes such outrage?
Annahstasia Enuke: I really cannot understand why. It’s probably a very complicated and culturally specific answer that don’t have the time to dedicate to finding right now.

How do you think our understanding of beauty has shifted with the evolution of technology?
Annahstasia Enuke: I think it’s a lot easier to follow a hive mind now. And personality is dissociated from beauty online. So the beauty of a person becomes completely dictated by trend almost. I think there is more opportunity for niche now so you can always pursue more reality-based virtues but in terms of what has become “commercial,” it’s almost at trope levels. Like you could assemble “beauty” with a mood board from your discover page. Even if you don’t subscribe to it or curate it for yourself.

What do you think the future of beauty is?
Annahstasia Enuke: I'm not sure, but I hope it becomes more diverse, more accessible and less consumer based.

This month Annahstasia Enuke will be supporting Lenny Kravitz on his European tour. Find out more here.

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