Written by:
Bowale Fadare

It’s not just hair, it’s a tool to navigate society and relationships

Read time:
5 minutes

It’s not just hair, it’s a tool to navigate society and relationships

Former Runnymede Trust Unbound Trainee, Bowale Fadare, reflects on her visit to the Horniman Museum’s exhibition, Hair: Untold Stories. What is the cultural and political significance of hair, and how can we unlearn discriminatory norms, starting with hair?

On the ground floor at the Horniman Museum is a room dedicated entirely to the multifaceted nature of hair. The exhibit, Hair: Untold Stories features artists’ work and testimonies from members of the local community, and explores hair through the lens of mental health, economics, health, employment and education.

The discourse around hair comes from all angles, and often there is a problem when women from minority ethnic backgrounds choose to style theirs. As a practice, hair styling is personal. During the lockdowns, many people had to learn or re-learn how to care for their hair.  The role of hair salons and barbershops in the community also became more evident, as these spaces dedicated to the care of ethnic hair are international hubs where different people can converge, share and feel safe.

The perception of hair has led scholars to suggest that hair is a way to promote, reinforce, and culturally diffuse gender, race, and class-based norms through society. Hence, it is more than the visible material object. Arguably, the hair discrimination that is now known stems from the second-class status of Black people during the height of colonialism and its racist practices.Today, there are still cases of hair discrimination such as when UK student, Ruby Williams, sued her school for being  told that her hair was too big and was distracting other students from their learning. Situations like this, coupled with the disproportionate rate at which BME people are disciplined or even arrested by the police, is indicative of a much larger context.

As part of my research into hair and its socio-political meanings, I spoke with Emma Tarlo,  anthropologist and consultant curator for the exhibit. Emma became interested in hair when engaging with women who cover their hair, whether with cloth or wigs as in the case of some Jewish women. This alerted her to the global trade in human hair on which she conducted research which informs the exhibition. Historically, the hair trade has long been globalised with Europe and America importing human hair from Europe, China and India for over a century. In the 1970’s synthetic hair made in Japan and the US became popular. For instance, wigs and weaves for sale in West and East Africa in the 1970’s were primarily made from human hair imported from Europe, but later companies like Darling Uganda sought to corner the market by providing affordable synthetic  Kanekalon fibres. Since its development over 50 years ago, Kanekalon has revolutionised the styling of Black hair, granting many women the opportunity to - as some say - ‘enhance’ their hair. Today some entrepreneurs are developing more ecologically friendly braiding hair from vegetable fibres.  

Hair is what frames us and through it we also learn what people think about us. Hence, hair is a tool to navigate relationships and society. A key message throughout the exhibit reminds us of  the need to perceive hair as more than just the physical material. An interesting inclusion was the use of discarded hair as hair booms to mop up oil spills, and 3D comb art by secondary school students. To platform the stories of Black women and non binary people, Korantema Anyimadu, a cultural producer, curator and zine maker, created a hair shop installation. In it she included oral stories as well as a literal hair shop with many products and items that conjured up nostalgic memories of my experience as a child in what many of us colloquially call the Blacke hair shop. Ironically, most of the stores I grew up with or near to were hardly run by Black people. This invisibility of Black people at a management level in hair shops is contradictory to the hyper visibility of Black women and men in the marketing of products in the shops themselves.  

Though hair is a mainstream reality, the Hair: Untold Stories exhibition seeks to unearth forgotten stories about hair from different parts of the world and perspectives. It encourages us to consider hair as a lens through which we can glean the nuances of lived experiences. It prompts us to change our behaviour towards people from ethnic backgrounds, and people with visible and invisible mental health issues. Within four walls, the exhibit takes us on a journey of learning, unlearning and relearning what we know about hair, on and off our heads.

With a special thanks to Korantema Anyimadu, Habiba Nabisubi and Emma Tarlo for taking the time to speak with me and share their stories. 

Author: Bowale Fadare is an alumni of the Runnymede Trust’s Unbound Traineeship, which aims to create a sustainable model for developing and retaining talent within the wider sector. Bowale has recently started at the Women’s Resource Centre as their Admin and Membership Officer.

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