jessica madavo’s striking portraits of black schoolgirls with natural hair
“Afro Project” is an optimistic response to the discrimination faced by South African schoolgirls with natural hair.
Photography Jessica Madavo
Last year, a series of powerful photos from Pretoria High School for Girls in South Africa went viral. They showed schoolgirls as young as 13 standing defiant, fists raised, peacefully protesting for their right to wear natural hair. While afros were not specifically mentioned in the majority-white institution’s code of conduct, girls were being sent home for wearing afros or cornrows, and one girl apparently had her suspension upheld on the grounds that her natural hair was "uncontrollable." A petition titled “Stop Racism at Pretoria Girls High” garnered upwards of 30,000 signatures.
Jessica Madavo was saddened by news of the school’s discriminatory policies, but not surprised. The 17-year-old photographer went to school in South Africa before moving to England. She was all too familiar with the harsh policing of black women’s beauty in the country, where inequality lingers despite the end of apartheid in 1994. Jessica went home to South Africa to take intimate, empowering portraits of black schoolgirls wearing all kinds of natural hair, from cropped and bleached curls to beautiful Black Panther Party halos. “It is important that my work carries a meaning and may one day evoke change,” Jessica says of her decision to turn the passion project into an enchanting new series titled Afro. We talked to the young photographer about the pervasiveness of Eurocentric beauty standards and her relationship to her own hair.
What was your initial reaction to the casual discrimination faced by South African schoolgirls?
Honestly, I wasn’t that surprised — more saddened. Telling someone that their natural hair is unacceptable is a blow below the belt, in an environment where they are meant to feel they belong. It highlights how backward-thinking people still are. It’s good to know that the girls fought back for what they knew was right though!
To what extent did you face this kind of discrimination when going to school in SA?
While I feel that I was never discriminated against directly, I did notice the school rules — particularly the hair rules — to be quite regressive. In schools that are predominantly white, the hair rules were created by people that had no understanding of black hair and who took no initiative to understand black hair. As a result, they were created in line with Eurocentric ideals of beauty which didn’t allow any space for African girls with natural hair. Furthermore, this type of environment resulted in some of my peers making prejudicial comments (i.e. that I look better when I have hair extensions as opposed to my natural hair)
How are things different in England?
In general, because England is so cosmopolitan, people are used to diversity. More boundaries are pushed regarding hair so seeing someone with an afro doesn’t really stand out as much.
Your personal work involves a lot of spontaneous photos of your close friends. What was it like to shoot portraits of strangers?
The girls I chose to photograph appeared very confident, and I think this comes across in the portraits. Although I had decided who I was going to photograph, I hadn’t planned how I was going to capture the moments which portrayed the relationship they have with their hair.
How has this project changed your relationship to your own hair?
I’ve always felt comfortable wearing my natural hair, but being around other girls who are just as confident, if not more, has definitely allowed me to appreciate my hair more. I keep a balance between wearing extensions and wearing my natural hair.
How have girls around you, particularly girls of color, responded to the project?
Initially, I only shared the project with the people I chose to photograph and people close to me. After seeing how it all came together, I shared my project with more people and I was humbled by the really positive feedback received. For women of color, I think it acted as a reminder that their natural hair is just as good as anyone else’s. For other people, it’s breaking the perception that afro hair is any lesser than any other hair type.