I eavesdropped on one docent, who pointed to a series of black-and-white photographic self-portraits titled Don't Hate Me Because I'm Beautiful (1996) by Cynthia Wiggins, the title a takeoff on the Kelly LeBrock shampoo commercial from several years ago. The well-executed images are unrelenting close-ups of Wiggins' less than perfect complexion and mane of untamed hair, which has been allowed to grow in naturally.
"Who thinks the lady in the photos is beautiful?" chirps a graying, white male docent (who deserves a Best Explanation of a Difficult Social Issue Award) to his all-white, obviously middle-class, fourth-grade entourage. Two, then three hands tentatively rise. "And who thinks the lady is not beautiful?" All the boys thrust their hands skyward. With an almost imperceptible sigh, but unflagging cheerfulness, the dogged docent begins a lesson that should have been learned long ago from parents, school and church: "Where do we learn what is beautiful? And who sets the standard of what is beautiful?"
Maybe it's my own personal obsession with hair -- mine and everyone else's -- that makes "HairStories" such eminently attractive fare. We all have haunting hair stories, nightmarish experiences that instantly create within us a profound empathy for any human who has ever wrestled with tress trauma.
Like the blond weave I, for some inexplicable reason, decided to get for my long, dirty brown hair a year and a half ago in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, a country in which 99.99 percent of all people have thick, lustrous, naturally black hair. My light brown mop ended up resembling flaming-orange straw and looking as if it had been styled by a blind Buddhist monk. Psychic scars from bad beauty makeovers linger long after those disastrous 'dos have grown out.
My tales of tonsure, however, pale (no pun intended) in comparison to the average African-American hair experience, which is the locus around which "HairStories" has been built. The show, scheduled to tour Chicago and Atlanta after it closes here, is the brain child of Kathy Hotchner, director of the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, the performance branch of the Scottsdale Cultural Council, and Kim Curry-Evans, SMoCA's former collections manager and now director of visual arts at Sacramento-based St. Hope Corporation. Curry-Evans, an African-American female, helped to hatch the show's premise after being a part of "hair parties" Hotchner organized for African-American women from all walks of life here in the Valley for the purpose of swapping stories about their hair triumphs and tribulations over the years. Hotchner originally got the idea for the parties from an Urban Bush Woman's performance piece she was responsible for bringing to SCA in 1989.
Through historical images, documentary videos and cogent explanatory text, as well as art related to and sometimes actually made from African-American hair, "HairStories" weaves its way through thorny social, political and spiritual associations connected with a black person's crowning glory -- issues of social status, acceptance and group identification, some of which historically have not been particularly pretty. What really hits home, however, is the fact that these associations are of embarrassingly recent vintage. "HairStories" is a potent reminder that it's been less than 40 years since the civil rights movement in this country began the long, painful process of weeding out long-entrenched prejudices that forced African-Americans to use separate rest rooms, to attend separate schools and to straighten their hair with white-hot, death-defying instruments of torture, including chemicals and potions like lye, kerosene and axle grease -- or to hide it with wigs -- so that they would look whiter and, thus, be socially more acceptable. Just think back to those Supremes wigs in the '60s or Rat Pack member Sammy Davis Jr.'s greased and conked hair in the late 1950s.
Predictably, some work in this show, especially its sculptural offerings, shines, while other pieces would have been better left excluded. Kori Newkirk's Legacy (1999), an imposing circle of six-foot-tall black Afro picks, commands immediate attention, its sheer size transforming this familiar shape into a suggestion of African-American community. Extensions (Ethnic Signifiers) (1995) by Cathleen Lewis is composed of snaky ropes of synthetic hair wound around millinery wire. The installation's carefully shaped coils of hair drape like kudzu vines from the ceiling, festooning a back gallery. David Hammons' imposing Strang [sic] Fruit (1989), a gigantic sculpture made from rubber inner tubes gathered and sheered like fabric on a long piece of lumber and ending in wavy dreadlock-like appendages, references the emotionally wrenching Billie Holiday classic written by Abel Meeropol, a leftist schoolteacher from the Bronx, about the lynching of blacks in the South ("Black body hanging in the Southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees").
Of note are two non-representational pieces that incorporate hair and hair-related materials into powerful abstractions. In Self-Portrait #1 (China Shag) (2001), Nadine Robinson uses human hair extensions imported from China that she collected and wore over a four-year period to create a large-scale curtain. From a distance, the piece looks like a magnificent signature Ad Reinhardt black painting (ironically, the artist once described his black paintings as ". . . free, unmanipulated, unmanipulatable, useless, unmarketable, irreducible, unphotographable, unreproducible, inexplicable icon[s]"). Up close, Robinson's piece is a blanket of long, shiny black hair that begs to be stroked (but don't even think about it, since I suspect that the museum guards have been instructed to tackle anyone who tries). Perm end papers, singed then colored with translucent cellophane dye popular in black salons in the 1980s, are the mainstay of dreadlocks cain't tell me shit (2000) by artist Mark Bradford, whose day job as a South Central L.A. hair stylist supplies him with plenty of ideas and art materials. Bradford's perm paper canvas combines the best of minimalist technique with intentionally thoughtful content.
Almost without exception, the photographic art in "HairStories" is remarkable. James VanDerZee's wonderful environmental portraits of beauty and barbershop clients taken during the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and '30s sparkle and underscore the vital importance of the neighborhood hair parlor as a social center for the exchange of information and ideas. Deborah Willis' Bald Three Days (2001), a balding self-portrait taken after the artist had undergone chemotherapy for cancer, is a poignant admonition that disease and death are equal opportunity employers colorblind to race or social status.
But the most fascinating photos of all are those by Bill Gaskins. Tamara and Tireka, Easter Sunday, Baltimore, Maryland (1995) features two young women set against the backdrop of an industrial riverfront. Their elaborate 'dos, piled high on their heads like some avant-garde Frank Gehry building and set off by perfectly formed and flat forehead curls, are a tribute to the architectonic. Gaskins has also documented African-American hair shows, which have the same strange hold on me as those child beauty pageants made famous by the ill-fated JonBenet Ramsey.
Gaskins' Stylistic Model, Spring Hair Show, Columbus, Ohio (1991) documents the fashion of cutting geometric designs into the scalp. But the photographer's real pièce de résistance, however, is Stanley Bronner Brothers International Beauty Show, Atlanta, Georgia (1991), an incredible black-and-white photographic depiction of a male model whose hair has been cut, coaxed and teased into a classic, foot-high Smurf hat -- or maybe it's a King Kamehameha Royal Hawaiian headdress.
Whatever the model's creative coiffure may aspire to be, this photo alone is worth the price of admission to "Hair Stories."