February 11, 2021

Hair Stories: Dives Deep Into Questions of Beauty and Belonging 

In honor of Black History Month, we’d like to look at the fascinating catalog Hair Stories. This is the accompanying publication to the exhibition at SMoCA that was on view from Oct. 3, 2003 – Jan. 4, 2004. The catalog includes compelling artwork from three generations of renowned African American artists in addition to essays and poetry about Black hair. The exhibition was inspired by Urban Bush Women’s performance piece and discussions with African American women about their hair experiences and was created by the ensemble’s artistic director Jawole Willa Jo Zolla. Initiated by Kathy Hotchner, previous director of Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts and borne from the ideas of Kim Curry-Evans, now Scottsdale Public Art Director, the multimedia exhibition went on to tour Chicago and Atlanta to much acclaim.  

Among the essays and verse shared in the book are individual stories of the impact of Black hair, hair salons, and barbershops, and their personal, political and spiritual significance. Personal experiences bring an honesty and emotion to their words and draw in readers who may or may not be familiar with the narrative of Black hair. Authors explore the idea of beauty, who determines what is beautiful, and the resulting impact on self-worth and individuality. From traditional African styles to contemporary coiffures, works examine the links between the past and present and seek to answer the question of what “good” or “bad” hair is.   

In a vivid poem by Kevin Powell, he describes his relationship with hair through his barbershop experience. Pamela Sneed shares poignant anecdotes of being a teen in the 70s wanting Dorothy Hamill hair and having to protect her straightened hair with plastic baggies while having the usually carefree experience of playing in sprinklers. She compares the Black hair salon and barber shop to the community church and reflects on strong themes such as self-hatred, racism, and sexism. Curry-Evans’s essay gives detailed historical context, considers African American relationships with hair and explains the main themes throughout Hair Stories. Dr. Neal A. Lester shares his childhood experiences in relation to his own son’s experience and follows the tumultuous timeline of Black hair history from its beginnings to the present. 

Beautiful color plates of the exhibition’s artwork can be found throughout. Included is Beverly McIver’s poignant, Do You Think I’m Pretty?, 2003and its contemplative foreground figure, a woman isolated from the other figures, in a salon regarding her painted face in a hand mirror.  Kehinde Wiley’s Conspicuous Fraud Series #1 (Eminence), 2001, features a suited male surrounded by swirling wafts of his own hair, the clothing’s formality in stark contrast to the winding locks breaking up the aqua background. 

From Afros to Dreadlocks, Hair Stories offers an authentic and thoughtful look inside the world of African American hair, the modern aesthetic, and its far-reaching implications.  Available now in Shop@SMoCA and the online store, this catalog makes a wonderful addition to any library as well as a meaningful gift. 

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