i-D Hair Week is an exploration of how our hairstyles start conversations about identity, culture and the times we live in.
"There's no such thing as good hair," says Gerrel Saunders, an artist from Trinidad and Tobago, who addresses the false narrative of "good hair" in his digital illustration series Crown. His meticulous drawings feature the varied hairstyles — from slender cornrows to goddess braids and buns — of faceless black women, and draw attention to skewed beauty standards and self-acceptance. "Kinky, curly, straight, wavy, long, short, shaved or whatever — it doesn't make a difference," Saunders says. "Embrace your hair the way it is, no matter what society tells you. All hair is good hair." Here, we ask Saunders a few questions about his empowering work.
Why did you want to explore the complexities of black hair in your work?
Because it's still a sensitive and important topic within the black community. What's more, having a twisted narrative of "good" versus "bad" hair isn't healthy for young black girls who might be struggling with their personal identities and are subjected to a wealth of Eurocentric idealisms through mainstream marketing. I'm not against straight hair, nor am I against the straightening of hair or the use of chemicals to achieve a look you're genuinely happy with. I am, however, against the social stigma that's still prevalent and put on natural black hair and hairstyles, which drives some women to conform to skewed beauty standards. "Good hair" was never about beauty — it was a survival tactic.
Can you explain what you mean by that?
The term "good hair" is derived from the plantation era, unfortunately. It was used to describe long flowing, loosely curled, finer hair as opposed to kinkier, coarser and more-difficult-to-maintain hair. "Good hair" was sought after by slaves because the less African they looked, the better they would be treated by slave owners; it also boosted the probability of being chosen to work house jobs rather than field labor. At that period, any and everything African was considered bad — from wide nostrils and full lips to dark skin and our hair.
Why did you choose to remove the faces from the portraits?
For two reasons: So that the audience would focus solely on the hair and nothing else, and I wanted the artwork to have a sense of anonymity. Without the facial features, it makes the pieces much more approachable and relatable to the audience. I love when viewers can see themselves in my artwork, and I believe in the saying, "We don't see things as they are — we see them as we are."
Why did you call the series Crown?
I wanted a title that was simple, symbolic, and celebratory, and Crown embodies those attributes. Secondly, a crown symbolizes power, glory, and royalty; it's typically made from precious materials and is worn by a monarch. These are qualities I associate with black women and their hair.
Text Zio Baritaux
Illustrations Gerrel Saunders