Gabriela Richard’sabout her project; unraveld/recoiled. Many black women who find their hair fitting into either of the two categories can recount many tales of being ostracized because of hair texture. Also, unlike skin color, it is something that we can change, and have changed, to fit a variety of social ideals that often go beyond just the desire to style. Additionally, there is a lot of political weight to hair.
Gabriela Richard’s final Project of Live Image Processing and Performance of the ITP (interactive Telecommunications Program) at Tish (NYU) was about hair entitled: Unraveld/Recoiled.
Hello Gabriela. Why did you choose hair?
I chose hair because it has such a significant amount of weight for most women of color. The dialogue over who has “good” hair and who has “bad” hair has been in our families for generations, through verbal and non-verbal discourse. Many black women who find their hair fitting into either of the two categories can recount many tales of being ostracized because of hair texture. Also, unlike skin color, it is something that we can change, and have changed, to fit a variety of social ideals that often go beyond just the desire to style. Additionally, there is a lot of political weight to hair. There have been a number of cases where black and black Hispanic women have found themselves discriminated at the job or at school because of choosing to wear their hair natural or in styles that compliment and are enhanced by their natural hair texture (like locks or braids). Since we are going through a renaissance of sorts, in the sense that natural styles appear to be embraced more and more, I wanted to see if these kinds of experiences have lessened, or if this is another short-lived era in which we are accepting our natural hair texture.
Can you tell us more about your project Unraveled/Recoiled?
“Unraveled/Recoiled” delves into the significant personal, political and cultural meaning of black hair texture and style within and outside of the black community, focusing specifically on the personal narratives of Black women.
Culturally, the black hair issue has fallen mostly on Black women, who, more often, are encouraged to embrace hair that has length or style (as is the case for women in most Western cultures). However, through colonialism and slavery, Black women learned to view their hair as representing beauty standards and ideals that were not hailed by the culture-at-large. Thus, the Black community has been grappling with the meaning of hair texture and hair choice, and the divisions that it can cause.
Gabriela Richard: An interactive exploration into the intimate and, at times,
emotional nature of hair choice for black women, explored through touch.
I wanted to create an interactive interface, which would act as a window into this often unrecognized issue, as well as a mirror for those women who have dealt with this decision for their lifetime, but who may have become desensitized from the discourse. I felt that Unraveled/Recoiled delves into the significant personal, political and cultural meaning of black hair texture and style within and outside of the black community, focusing specifically on the personal narratives of Black women.
Hair is part of a very sacred personal space that typically needs to be invited into. This installation creates an invited space where personal narratives can be shared, and users can obtain a level of physical intimacy with the subject. Instead of the work being behind physical or otherwise imposed barrier (which, I believe can continue the process of alienation with the personal nature of the topic), I feel that having touch at the centerpiece of the installation, along with the personal dialogue, can assist in breaking down the current obstacles with the issue, and opening up the discourse within and outside of the community.
One of the questions you ask the people that you interview is “Do you love your hair?” Do you love your hair?
I have to say that I have come to care for and cherish my hair more than I used to, but I feel it is an uphill battle for many women of color. Even though I have hair that some would consider to be less kinky, I also spent a good part of my childhood life wearing it in a short Afro, which was not the norm at that time period (this was at the tale end and right after the black power movements). While many children were supportive of my hair, I did receive a lot of negative comments, and those negative experiences can last into adulthood. Also, I think it is hard for us to love our hair in a society that showers us with so many images that are in direct opposition to what we have.
I received many positive comments when I wore my hair in straighter or longer styles (i.e., braids), so it is hard not to be influenced by that. However, I have kept my hair natural for 8 years now, and I love seeing how my texture evolves, day-to-day and week-to-week. Many times we are so focused on changing our hair that we do not realize that it is in a state of constant flux itself. I will say that I am coming close to loving my hair, because, like every other part of my body, it is uniquely my own, and embraces no mold or standard to follow.
Out of the people who you interview, I believe there is one teenager who doesn’t love her hair or more? Do you think women of color love their hair in general or do we need to learn to love our hair?
I think many of us learn to love our hair. Teenage years are the hardest for us, no matter our racial or cultural backgrounds. I think that teenage girls have to deal with a lot of issues, and I think the weight of hair affects them the most, because they are at the early stages of trying to understand their own beauty, and usually how it is seen through the eyes of others.
Through doing this project, I found that the one child I interviewed (who wore cornrows) loved her hair and the many styles it had. I found that the two teenage girls did not love their hair and wanted it to be different. I found that there was a range of responses from the women, who ranged from early 20s to 60s. However, I found that women who had natural styles (by choice) had the most positive views of their hair, and most of the women with straightened or permed hair had the most negative views of their hair.
What was your experience with relaxers?
I never had a full relaxer, but I had what many salons would refer to as a “soft” relaxer, because both my mother and father were against me perming my hair. Many times that meant that most of my perm would come out after I washed it. Also, I could not perm my hair more than 2 times a year, so I had to get creative with how I styled my hair, and I spent a lot of time wearing a wavy/curly “wet” look (that was in style at the time). I usually went to the same hairdressers, so I had good experiences in the salons overall.
However, there was one time I went to a new place in my neighborhood. They attempted to give me a “wavy” perm over my other perm and it severely damaged my hair to the point I had to cut most of it off. My regular hairdresser cut it a little past my ears and straightened it again. I remember that was the boldest cut I had ever had done, but I received many compliments on it. Overall, I remember that I really liked being in the beauty shops and seeing everyone getting their hair done, since I really did not get to spend much time there.
Do you think natural hair is still and issue in our community? Can you explain?
I think that wearing your hair natural is still an issue in our community, especially if you choose to adopt what would be seen as more controversial styles, like having it picked out into a large afro, wearing it cropped very short or wearing locks. It really depends on where you are, as certain areas are more likely to embrace you than others. However, I think the teenagers have to deal with the brunt of it, since I hear them discuss hair matters more than adults, and I also see very few of them wearing natural hair. I also know that most people in my part of Harlem wear their hair straight, though I have noticed more variety than a few years ago.
How do you feel about natural hair now?
I love the variety of hairstyles I see people wearing. I think now we wear more of a variety than we did even in the 60s and 70s during the hair revolution, when we sought to have society embrace our hair. I am happy that we continue to expand our choices and tap into our roots to do so.
What do you think of the word nappy? Is it pc?
Nappy is one of those words that stung you when you were a kid. If you heard someone use it, you thought they were being negative (like when your grandmother was combing your hair) or confrontational (if it were not another person of color). I like that we are making it our own. While I don’t share that same level of support for the other “N” word, I think nappy has a bittersweet quality to it that embraces the joys and the pain (mainly in the “kitchen”) that we share in loving and maintaining our hair. Also, as one of my interviewees said it, she loves her hair (namely its nappiness) because it curls so perfectly into locks, and no other hair type would be able to do the same. We have so many positive aspects of our hair texture, especially if we choose to embrace the styles that compliment its makeup. It is when we try to make it something else that we get frustrated with it.
At a very young age, I became aware of how critical the definition of race, culture and beauty are intertwined within the strands of hair, in all of its forms, but, most apparently within the context of curly hair. As a daughter of a first-generation American, French-Canadian, white mother, and an African-American father, both, at the time, actively involved in the civil-rights movement, I was always finding myself caught in the cultural ?hair? war, and how it defined my racial and cultural identity.
My mother and my father wanted me to define myself as a young woman of color, and, while my skin color always left me open to cultural and racial identification, my hair, being curly enough to hold a solid afro, was my defining mantra toward black acceptance, and, as such, I was encouraged to use it to label my cultural classification.
However, as blissfully happy as I was with my curly locks and their ability to hold such a commanding form, I was very unaware of the political significance of such a decision, and its social implications. While most children my age found themselves in similar states of blissful ignorance of social stigma, and chose to accept me, locks and all, it was those few incidents, when exposed to older children, that tore at my self-esteem and forced me to question my ideas of confidence and beauty, especially as it related to my hair.
My first incident occurred when I was four or five with an older white child (probably eight or nine years old), who came near my daycare facility while my friends and I were playing in the yard, and singled me out to tell me how everyone ?in the neighborhood? thought I was ?ugly with that hair.? However, I became acutely aware that it was not just white little girls who found my hair hideous when, very soon after, I was told by women of color that I should accept my ?prettiness? and get rid of my ugly hair.
Of course, my immediate reaction was to straighten my hair and, thus, become socially embraced by my peers, who increasingly expressed the same ideas of beauty. I begged for a straight perm, which was frowned upon by my parents; they eventually gave into demands, but only allowed it to be done once or twice a year, which left me with curly roots and subsequent battles over beauty in the interim. This lasted well into my teens.
The interesting thing was I found myself facing a variety of beauty standards and social definitions depending on my hair. I found that when my hair was straight or pulled back enough to not notice the texture of its kinkiness, I was perceived as culturally Hispanic as well as socially more attractive. When my hair was in braids, I would be perceived as culturally African-American, and socially mixed in terms of attractiveness. However, I found that, no matter what, curly was always perceived as offensive or ugly. In more recent times, this definition has changed somewhat, but no matter the circumstances, curly, and its offspring (i.e., locks, Afros, etc.) are always politically perceived, and forces the wearer to justify its usage, within and outside of the African-American community.
Cultural acceptance has always been a hurdle for me because of my racial mixture, but, more noticeably, because of my choice in hair texture. I wish to uncover why hair is such a dramatic choice in the context of social definition, and to bring the often-unrecognized struggle (by those who must make the choice and those that don’t) to the forefront of consciousness.