talking politics at the beauty salon

A new exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem explores how women use their hair and nails to assert their identity.

by Jessica C. Andrews
27 March 2015, 8:20pm

Long and sleek, or textured and full? Pointed and airbrushed, or curved and painted? Beauty salon menus advertise endless possibilities. And, as a new exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem explores, for women who are historically oppressed and disenfranchised, hair and nail choices carry even more significance. More than just signifiers of style, hair and nails become formidable political statements. To athletes whose physique might be considered masculine, for example, long red nails are a way to assert femininity. For women with natural hair, an Afro might constitute a bold rejection of limiting standards of beauty. "Salon Style" aims to examine the complexities of the choices we make at salons, and how they relate to broader issues of gender and race. On opening night, we spoke with curator Hallie Ringle:

What made you want to focus on salon style as opposed to street style or the runway?
Though our nails and hair are small areas, any changes there have an immediate effect on a person's appearance. This exhibition isn't about a specific type of style or beauty but about a larger understanding of the ways hair and nails serve as locations for identity. Hair and nails are also very politicized. I think Flo-Jo [the athlete Florence Delorez Griffith Joyner] is a good example of this. She chose to remain loyal to her personal style [and six-inch nails] while winning three gold medals and setting two world records during the Olympics.

J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere, Ogun Pari, 2000. Courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem.

What is particularly interesting about salon culture in Harlem?
The Studio Museum is on 125th Street, which has a history of hair salons and stylists that exists both in the salon and on the street. Salon advertising in particular has become part of the visual culture of Harlem.

How do the artists you chose explore issues of gender and politics?
Deborah Willis' photograph of bodybuilder Nancy Lewis, for example, highlights Lewis' hair and nails along with her bodybuilder physique. Her styling choices are what people think of as conventionally feminine — her nails are red and her hair is styled — but her body is very muscular, which isn't something traditionally associated with the female form. This is especially significant in a world that considers beauty, strength and power to be incongruous.

What are some highlights of the video and performance portion of the exhibit?
"Unbreakable," a video by Nontsi Mutiti, features a comb with a soundtrack of hand drumming. It's as if she's playing the comb. Both the drum and the comb are small instruments that are capable of creating great change. Nontsi says: "The comb and the hand drum are both hand-held instruments. These objects are central to ritual practices and routines. Through simple repetitive gestures these tools can conjure up strong and powerful magic resulting in extreme transformations that may act upon the body, the mind, the eyes."

What do you hope people will take away from the exhibition?
A fuller appreciation of self-expression.

Chris Ofili, Untitled, 2007. Courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem.

"Salon Style" runs through June 28 at the Studio Museum in Harlem.


Text Jessica C. Andrews
Images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem
Lead image Hank Willis Thomas, Who Can Say No to a Gorgeous Brunette?, 1970/2007

black hair
Black politics
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