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Posted at 06:24 PM ET, 03/02/2012

Smithsonian’s ‘The Will to Adorn’: black hair and cultural identity

Red carpet fashion police acted with amazement and astonishment when Academy Award nominee Viola Davis did something many black women across the country have been doing for years — going natural, back to basics and embracing a black woman’s own authentic beauty.
Actress Viola Davis and her husband arrive on the red carpet for the 84th Annual Academy Awards. (Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images)

Ethnic beauty, hair health, hair mythologies and the art of hair adornment among black women and black men will be the focus of “Heads Up,” a program organized by the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum.

During the program, scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday, anthropologist and curator Diana Baird N’Diaye and aesthetic surgeon Monte O. Harris will discuss historical and cultural aspects of black hair. The museum has asked participants to bring their own “hair stories” and share hair photos.
Example of a hairstyle worn in the African American community. (Courtesy of Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum)

“Heads Up” is part of “The Will to Adorn: African American Dress and the Aesthetics of Identity,” the Smithsonian’s larger ongoing cultural research project on folk life and heritage. “Will to Adorn,” which explores the history of dress, traditional art, hairstyles and body adornment in the African Diaspora, will present its findings at the 2013 Folklife Festival Program on the Mall.

“Historically, the name ‘The Will to Adorn’ came from the words of Zora Neale Hurston, who said one of the most important parts of African-American expressive culture was ‘the will to adorn,’ ” says N’Diaye, the program’s curator and principal researcher. “She was talking about words, but also about culture.”

“The Will to Adorn” project looks at artisans of style in black communities. “There are several communities of style. And there is a big link to identity,” N’Diaye said. “What the project ended up being is a look at African American diversity through the lens of dress — everything from head to toe. From hair styles to hats to clothing to shoes.”
Example of a pyramid hairstyle worn in the African American community. (Courtesy of Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum)

At the Anacostia museum, “we are going to be talking to people about their hair and how they adorn their heads. The overall project is about dress and adornment. The project ‘The Will to Adorn’ is about the Smithsonian's grand challenge to understand the American experiences,” she said.

Harris, a surgeon and scholar who runs the Center for Aesthetic Modernism in Chevy Chase, will discuss how beauty, health and identity are entangled. These are key components of his program called “The Do Good H.A.I.R. Project.” Harris maintains that mental and physical well-being are tied to identity and the need to reclaim ancestral memory. In his clinic, he works with women to embrace their cultural authentic beauty and “cultivate personal growth through hair growth.”

“We use beauty as an outside door to go inside,” said Harris, who advocates a more holistic discussion concerning hair and beauty that allows women and men to embrace and celebrate their cultural integrity and “reclaim the memory” of ancestral identity.
Example of a shaved head hairstyle worn in the African American community. (Courtesy of Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum)

“There is a movement that is happening now. You can feel it,” Harris said. “The fact that Viola Davis has gotten so much recognition and acclaim for simply just wearing her natural hair. Who would have thought you would get such recognition for just being yourself? Just being yourself can be this cultural avant-garde garde statement. ... It is a wonderful time now. The Euro-centric canons of beauty are being dissolved a bit. The platform for beauty is truly expanding.”

“Heads Up,” 2 p.m. , Sunday, March 4, Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum , 1901 Fort Place SE , Washington , D.C. 20020 . For reservations, call 202-633-4844.

By DeNeen Brown  |  06:24 PM ET, 03/02/2012

 
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