Hair Tactics

Afros and dreadlocks and conks and weaves, relaxer and straightener and perm endpapers and picks, cornrows and braids and beads . . . all of these styles, products and elements of African-American hair are examined and analyzed through the prism of art in the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art's latest exhibition, opening Thursday, titled "HairStories." The show explores the history, style and meaning of black hair via three generations of African-American artists.

"Why is it that African Americans process their hair so much?" guest curator Kim Curry-Evans asks. "What are the dynamics of good hair/bad hair? What is the historical connection for that?" These are some of the questions addressed by the exhibition, which features more than 60 works by 27 artists. It looks at four different aspects of black hair: the syndrome of good hair vs. bad hair; the importance of the barbershop and beauty salon as a center of the African-American community; the social and political symbolism of hair styles; and hair as an expression of individuality.

"HairStories" was inspired by performances of the same name by the New York dance troupe Urban Bush Women in 2000, which compiled tales of trials and tribulations black women experienced with their hair. When the troupe's artistic director, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, began talking about compiling an art exhibit in conjunction with the performances, Kim Curry-Evans, a former assistant curator at SMoCA now working in Sacramento, jumped at the chance. "I immediately was like, can I be the one to run with this ball?"

The result is an amazing compilation of works ranging from photographs and oil paintings to room-size installations. Kori Newkirk's Legacy is a sculpture of nine 100-inch-tall hair picks, arranged side-by-side in a circle to form what appears to be a giant crown (although one pick, true to life, has a missing tooth).

Kehinde Wiley's oil painting Conspicuous Fraud Series #1 (Eminence) shows a black man in corporate business attire standing stiffly against a blue background, while his hyperbolically immense dreadlocks fly off of the canvas in defiance. Alison Saar's sculpture Nappy Red Head is a life-size bust with carved tresses protruding skyward from it; on closer examination the locks are actually figurines, chess pieces, and ornamentation.

"It's a contemporary art exhibit," Curry-Evans says, "but also a historical look at why it is that black hair has taken up so much time in terms of where it feeds into American culture, whether it's how African Americans view themselves, or whether it's how mainstream culture views African Americans, like the Afro or dreadlocks, which were politically and socially powerful, a threat. There are a lot of historical threads."

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Brendan Joel Kelley