Visual artist Nakeya Brown‘s series on the politics of black women’s hair has been getting much attention lately as the photos make their way from New York to Michigan to D.C. and beyond. Her first series, “Refutation of Good Hair,” was born out of a personal journey to let her own hair grow into its natural state of curls — void of any chemical processing to make it straight — at the same time she was becoming a mother. “It was an opportunity to reflect upon how I understood myself and of how my daughter would be understood and defined,” Brown tells In Sight.
Brown, 27, held her first solo show titled “Hair Stories Untold” recently at New York’s Five Myles gallery over a three-day weekend. It was the third installment in an ongoing discourse that she continues to foster about the intersection of black women and hair and beauty culture. “We spend a lifetime trying to negotiate the medium of our hair and coerce it into fitting into standards outside of its natural being.”
“Untold” expounds on that visual discourse through multiple entry points; onion-like layers that reveal hair memories, rituals and shared experiences among black women through six short vignettes. The hot comb next to a hot plate recalls a photo from Carrie Mae Weems’s “The Kitchen Table Series” of a mother brushing her daughter’s hair at the table in that it is similarly a constructed documentary photograph. “Her photographs were the first that made me realize I can make stories about being a woman, being a woman of color, and it’s still a legitimate form of art,” Brown says.
Conceptual and smart, Brown’s images are like a secret language. Beauty markers — the hot comb, rollers in pink and yellow, and a lighter used to burn the ends of braids to seal them — are wrapped in a pastel colors meant to soften the viewer’s entry into a subject with a complex history.
Brown, who is working on her MFA at George Washington University in Washington, D.C, recently spoke to In Sight about how she conceived the series, her thoughts on creating shared experiences, and the politics of black hair.
In Sight: “Untold” has multiple entry points for exploring the subject matter you’re getting at: The soft color palette automatically invokes gender, the way you’ve aligned the hair markers speak to preserving an archive, and the rituals themselves are like a secret language among women who instantly know or have practiced them. Can you speak on your process of constructing these vignettes?
Nakeya Brown: I wanted to look at the different ways in which we visualize group identity. Through womanhood, through process and rituals, and through the practice of doing and handling one’s hair. There is identity within that, collective memory and group identity. I’m also very interested in working with objects and cultural artifacts, the tools of our labor, the tools of managing our hair a certain way and bringing these parts together: The figure, the body and the object.
Hair is a language that I know very well. I think it’s the language that expresses my concerns as an artist. What I’m most interested in is the sense of self-representation. Making work that is an archive of us and our experiences. We’re writing our stories in various different ways. Photography gives you an alternate way of representing yourself because we see images are everywhere and sometime they don’t have context of them about the person they are reflecting.
In Sight: The decision to use colorful background seems conscious and intentional. How does that factor into the overall mood or concept you were creating?
Brown: I pay a lot of attention to color, designing the photo and trying to create a mood. Because the tools I’m working with are flat, there is a lot of turmoil that is tied to this deep history of black beauty, and hair in particular. Talking about esteem, self-representation and how you identify yourself can get so heavy and weighted. Color balances the load that is tied to the work so that it doesn’t feel so weighted. It provides a safe place to approach the work.
In Sight: Many of the beauty rituals in your series appear to be acts done by one woman as though it’s her personal journey alone. Is this series meant to be autobiographical, or are you reflecting the experiences of a wider swath of women?
Brown: Some of the acts I’ve done myself and some have been done by other people — girlfriends, friends of friends, strangers, etc. Since I’ve been in grad school I found a bit of isolation where I find that I’m photographing myself more. It’s a departure from what using other bodies and other women who sort of share the experience that I had. Because it’s a photo of myself it’s autobiographical, but I’m still using my imagination to construct an experience, so a hybrid of both. I’m trying to get the viewer and incite memories. What are the memories and stories that we are bringing to these images? What do you bring to the images and how do you impose it on the photograph?