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Making Hair Apparent

Show on African locks has cultural perspective.

July 12, 2001|WILLIAM WILSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The current main-stage show at the California African American Museum gets off to a nice start. You enter via a darkened foyer where flashing signs pose such questions as "If We Never Cut Our Hair How Long Can It Grow?" or "How Strong Is Hair?"

As it turns out, most hair will get about 3 feet long, but the record is 17. And hair is stronger than comparable copper wire.

The trivia is amusing but something more significant is afoot. I mean ahead.

"Hair in African Art and Culture" encompasses about 170 surprisingly fresh objects ranging from 19th century tribal masterworks to a complete contemporary village barbershop, all organized by New York's Museum for African Art.

The museum's director, Frank Herreman, is from Belgium, a country where, he says, one sees few blacks. He also happens to be bald, so he says that it was a real novelty for him to come to the Big Apple and ride subways with black people with hair coiffed in different styles.

Deeply impressed, Herreman was inspired to do an exhibition with historian Roy Sieber.

The resulting traveling show has a 200-page catalog replete with photographs and sculptures of Africa's crowning glories, as well as scholarly essays.

Something about its serendipitous origins allows the show to roll easily among aesthetic exercise, cultural history and universal homilies about vanity. This is an exhibition for everybody.

Most of us have hair. Those who don't--generally men--feel the lack so strongly that they get a wig or brag they are more virile than guys with something to comb.

In the meantime the hirsute just sit back, smirk and pretend it's effeminate to even care about the subject. Hair is a girl thing.

They must know they're lying. In the fabled '60s, a cultural revolution was fought around the symbolism of hair. Crucial issues of personal identity and political power were expressed by the length, color and configuration of one's locks.

OK, if hair and its meanings are so universal, is there a good reason to limit an exhibition to the African variety?

I think so. It's a question of focus. Most images here reveal subjects who aren't wearing very much except their hair. And traditional African peoples got a lot of mileage from their hairdos. In one photograph, we see two women whose ground-length tresses serve as a kind of cape.

An artistically famous coif from Nigeria's Cross River people consists of five elaborate braids looped so that they look like elegant animal horns.

The effect of the hairstyle is a powerful female archetype. The male counterpart is found either in a Minotaur-like mask from the Ivory Coast or a witty Congolese fertility figure.

The exhibition shows how our hair connects us to the animal world while providing a prototype of that most civilized of human garments--the hat. A Pende man's hair is fashioned into something resembling a jester's cap. Virtually every African group has hairstyles that employ helmet-like central crests or crown-like symmetries.

In most Western art, hair is just, well, hair. African art gives it the expressive resonance it has in reality.

After reading the catalog, it's impossible to avoid noting that in Africa, just like over here, the person who cuts your hair often serves as a kind of psychiatrist.

There, as here, unkempt hair denotes inner distress and shaving it off signals change.

Perhaps the deepest truth in all the lore of hair is that everybody is jealous of everybody else's.

The contemporary section of the exhibit makes the point in African village signage ranging from Folk-Pop to Breck-suave.

Enthusiastically waving the American flag, the signage advertises haircuts with names like "Adidas" and "Black President."

If that seems unfortunate, don't forget the global picture. Today, multiculturalism signals triumph with Rastafarian whites, blond Asians and sherbet-colored rainbows for the undecided.

We entered the exhibition through an imaginary door labeled "Whimsy." If we pay attention we can exit by another marked "Sweetly Profound."

*

* "Hair in African Art and Culture," California African American Museum, 600 State Drive, Exposition Park; through Aug. 19, closed Monday; (213) 744-7432

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