Exploring race, identity and self-grooming by documenting the rituals black women undergo to follow society’s misguided visions of ‘beauty’
A lot has been spoken about in the press and on social media in regards to ‘black’ hair recently (here’s looking at you, Kylie Jenner’s cornrows). No matter where you stand, there’s no denying that there’s a conversation to be had – and photographer Nakeya Brown is fueling that dialogue with her thought-provoking, pastel-coloured visuals.
The California-born, Washington-based photographer’s three series – “The Refutation of ‘Good’ Hair”, “Hair Stories Untold” and “If Nostalgia Were Colored Brown” (the last accompanied by an R&B/disco mixtape celebrating “black girl cool”, shared below) – explore notions of identity, self-grooming and tradition. “I made this work around a time when I went natural, my peers were going natural, and I became a mother to a young daughter. I started to reflect on my hair stories and felt an urge to incorporate those memories and practices into my work. It’s important because the work is a place where discussion about body image, race, gender, and tradition can take place in a way that uplifts, reflects, and hopefully pushes thought forward.”
Through portraiture and still life, she challenges and discuss these themes in individual ways. “The Refutation of ‘Good’ Hair” sees Brown’s models consuming hair as if it were food, whereas “Hair Stories Untold” details the rituals that women undergo to maintain their hair; sealing braids with fire or boiling water and enlisting hairpieces to achieve such standards set by society and the media. The most recent in Brown’s trilogy, “If Nostalgia Were Colored Brown”, juxtaposes album sleeves from icons including Diana Ross and Deniece Williams with beauty tools like hair rollers and hood dryers.
“Traditional hairstyles such as locs, box braids, cornrows, Senegalese twists, afros, twist outs, and bantu knots are forms of resistance against white-washed beauty standards” – Nakeya Brown
Speaking on the re-appropriation of black culture, Brown speaks on the concerning relationship between the media and traditional beauty, one that she says is entrenched in ‘whiteness’. “Black women are subjugated to fit into that standard, specifically in regards to our hair because it’s both politicised and racialized – a predicament white people are exempt from. Traditional hairstyles such as locs, box braids, cornrows, Senegalese twists, afros, twist outs, and bantu knots are forms of resistance against white-washed beauty standards. To see a white public figure or platform adopt our resistance and receive appraisal is disorienting.”
With her work going on display this Friday 28 August in Washington in a group show exploring how memory shapes identity, titled Memory Flood, Brown continues to look at the way race, hair and beauty tie together and her next project will focus on vintage perm kits, their advertising and packaging. Watch this space.