Eternally Fly: The Art Of Black Hair Is Explored In The Studio Museum Of Harlem's 'Salon Style' Exhibition
Salon Style is an exhibition currently on view at the Studio Museum of Harlem, that explores black hair and beauty as both media and reference point, combing (ha) through the museum’s existing permanent collection to frame them as creative expression in the 'high-art' sense. As you enter the show, a multicolored curtain made of hair tracks and pony beads shimmers against the wall to your left, greeting you in different angles as you pass; a cascading fountain of braids leaves a final impression as you exit. Though black hair has been recognized before as the outward and visible sign of a deeper grace--from the aesthetico-political statement that birthed the Afro in the late '60s, to Hot Irons (Andrew Dosunmu's brilliant documentary film on Detroit's auteurs of black hair), Salon Style uses its gallery setting to elevate it to new heights, in a way that speaks powerfully to the present.
If blogs and social media are any indication, there has been an explosion over the past few years of public discourse around black women, hair and both the practices and standards of beauty. That the natural hair movement is something that both a) has a name and b) is known to people outside of the Black community is even more telling of the cultural moment we are living through right now. And yet, ubiquitous as black women’s hair stories have become in youth media, I am still constantly in awe of the presentation of and rituals that surround beauty practices in the black community, and still find myself having questions. Mainly: how is it possible for one group to be so fly, in so many different ways, simultaneously?
The answer of course is as complicated as the most intricate weave sculptures one can imagine. Histories, both personal and political; stories of visibility and marginalization; acquiescence to and rejection of beauty standards: these are but some of the nuanced issues that lie just below the surface of any black hair story, issues which imply many ways of seeing. Salon Style is almost anthropological in its presentation: hair and nails act as media alongside traditional portraiture photography, telling stories that position black personal aesthetics not just as subjects of the external gaze, but as independent agents defining themselves for the world to see. It is a celebration of identity and a rejection of the process of being made invisible which surrounds black agency in dominant art practices. It is a definitive statement on the eternal flyness of black people in America, particularly in the face of material marginalization. It is a story of the transcendent nature of personal style made cultural statement; a story of ritual and of tradition.
If you’re anything like me, you may not exit the show with any definitive answers of how self-presentation articulates a greater meaning to the world - but you will certainly feel enlivened for having borne witness to it in such a special setting.
Salon Style, organized by Hallie Ringle is on view at the Studio Museum of Harlem now until June 28th, 2015.