You Can Ask Me About My Hair

The photographs of Nakeya Brown spark a list of questions. What is a hot comb? What is a weave? Why do you burn or boil the edges of braid extensions? Each of these are little entry points into the unexplored and overlooked private lives and private decisions of black people, black women specifically.

On Nakeya Brown’s In Private Moments

photograph by Nakeya Brown

In mid-April, FiveMyles gallery in Crown Heights featured In Private Moments, Nakeya Brown’s New York gallery debut, at an event sponsored by Top Rank magazine. Brown, a young Black American photographer, gave a talk and held a dialogue with Kim Drew, the curator of the blog Black Contemporary Art. During her talk Brown discussed her three photo series, Hair Stories Untold, The Refutation of “Good” Hair, and if nostalgia were colored brown. Her work circles around the ritual of black hair, its creative manipulation and maintenance. The images play on the clinical pastel colors and the simple geometry of the chosen tools to create a stripped-back domesticity on which Brown lays out the demands she makes of her audiences. For those unfamiliar with the objects displayed, the images ask for that initial confusion to develop into curiosity. For those intimately familiar with those objects, the images ask for those memories to come forward and be recognized. The images are suggestions that imply the shared recollections of black women. They encourage those recollections to be recognized and shared.

That afternoon at FiveMyles the audience was almost entirely black women sporting fantastically beautiful hair. Women with thick box braids, with tall afros, with cornrows, with buzzed heads, with high buns, with delicate two-strand twists all flooded the small gallery space. As Brown flipped through her presentation, sharing the thinking behind her photo series as well as her own hair’s evolution, heads nodded in agreement. When she related her childhood experiences having her hair straightened with a stovetop hot comb, the audience cringed with her. They laughed in recognition when she shared how grown up her straightened hair made her feel. Many in the audience were excitedly aware of these feelings, bobbing their heads along in almost soulful union. Zadie Smith once helpfully described soulfulness as the ability “to follow and fall in line with a feeling.”  It seemed that Brown’s images had given her black audience the line to follow through their own intimate experiences to a shared feeling.

As Brown began her conversation with Kim Drew I wondered if the few white people in the room could be made aware of the communal intimacy present in Brown’s work.  Could they walk through the hot kitchens and bustling hair salons of another culture and arrive at a shared experience? Black people are at times so protective of black intimacy (moments when black experiences are accepted as universal and broad-reaching) that their importance can become shrouded to the outside world. The question of sharing these moments can evoke strong apprehension. Will these stories be appropriated or misrepresented? Will they be exploited or mocked? This apprehension stems from those situations where black intimacy was exposed and black people were unable to stop outside curiosity from contorting into hostility and disgust.

During the conversation with Drew, Brown brought up the infamous performance art piece You Can Touch My Hair, which was staged in New York during the summer of 2013. During the performance a group of black women of varying ages and hair types took to Union Square with signs inviting strangers to touch their hair. The You Can Touch My Hair performance quickly inspired loud debates within the black community on how to, and whether it was necessary to, educate others—outsiders—about our hair. Many women, wearing the multitude of hairstyles possible in the black hair vernacular, experience the intruding fingers of strangers, and many feel that this is a violation of both personal boundaries and basic standards of respect. In the video of the event Antonia Opiah, the founder of un-ruly.com, who organized YCTMH, discusses the discomforts of black women accepting strangers touching their hair. She offered the understanding that there are different types of curiosity. There is curiosity that is information seeking but there is also curiosity that is hostile or destructive, stemming from discomfort and even fear. She hoped that YCTMH would put everyone in a similar place of vulnerability and that education would follow from there. In a sense she was hoping to induce a state of shared feeling.

But the photographs of grinning white spectators clutching clumps of braids felt threatening to some black spectators. In the gallery, Drew asserted to Brown that she felt no responsibility to explain her hair (neat, shoulder-length dreadlocks) to strangers, saying “I don’t have time to educate,” which raised a question: Why is there the expectation that black women and girls must explain themselves to the curious, and how, faced with a complete absence of understanding, is it possible to have a conversation that does not feel like a waste of time?

Brown countered that she felt her work did educate those outside the community of black hair care but in a less provocative way than You Can Touch My Hair did. Drew added that the difference between the You Can Touch My Hair exhibit and the photo projects that make up In Private Moments was that the work of YCTMH asks the audience to interrogate the individual, whereas In Private Moments asks that the audience interrogate the work. But this is not entirely honest. In Private Moments does not educate by itself. It presents with clean, almost surgical precision the artifacts of the black woman’s domestic life and asks the audience members to interrogate one another. It gives those without information a means to give their questions a respectful remove.

In one still life from the Hair Stories Untold series, an oven mitt, a cast iron hot comb, and a square burner grate taken from a stovetop rest on a pink pastel background. Each item is perfectly clean and neatly arranged. To the uninitiated there is a lot to miss in this arrangement. Just as a non-Western viewer of a typical 17th-century still life might miss the implications of the split pomegranate or the arrangement of bread and wine, so too can those without experience miss the labor suggested in Brown’s photograph. It takes the experienced eye of a black woman to catch the implication but suspicious absence of Blue Magic hair grease, the absence of scorch marks in the crook of the oven mitt, the absence of still-kinky threads of hair caught in the straight (straightening) teeth of the comb. Then there is the smell of hair burning straight under the sizzle of grease and a glowing red-hot comb, which bring all these tools into a visceral trinity.

This labor is not apparent in the image; all of it is in the mind of a black female audience. The objects depend on these particular viewers—on this particular gaze—to bring the communal aspect, the mess and the labor, into the room. They depend on those “in the know” to discuss and share amongst themselves, and to answer questions from those out of the loop. Here Brown’s work is very similar to the YCTMH performance in that her work also asks the audience to interrogate the individual, but that interrogation takes place over a photograph rather a still-tethered fistful of hair. Her image shows that there is a difference between confrontational and conversational art. The photograph, as a discrete object removed from both the asker and the respondent, displaces the immediacy of conflict, allowing interrogation to soften into conversation.

As I listened to the conversation between Brown and Drew, I thought of a conversation I had had earlier in the week, sitting at a bar in Cambridge discussing a peculiar act of ignorance that had occurred at Princeton University. The Men’s Swimming and Diving Club had formed a percussion group on campus called Urban Congo. In their first public campus performance, the lithe bodies of the entirely white group of young men, wearing “loincloths” made of hand towels and Speedos as well as some vague attempts at tribal body paint, flung themselves around a well-lit stage banging on trash cans in an exhausting display of performative laziness. This—as was later explained with equal shiftlessness to a campus of offended black students and faculty—was meant to be a cultural salute and free expression of percussion.

At the bar in Cambridge, a white American Harvard MBA explained to me, the only black person in the group, that, having no heritage of his own, he found the concept of being offended (on a cultural level) beyond his understanding. He explained that when he asked people of color why they were so offended by this or that offense, he was often met with a frustration that he could not relate to. The frustration he was met with only served to preserve his ignorance and, he felt, shut down any chance at a dialogue. I explained that the question “Why are you so offended?” was frustrating because with so many research tools available to us today, especially at the great research institution that is Princeton University, it is frustrating that no one would use them to research the culture they were trying to salute. The Urban Congo performance was yet another instance of one culture misrepresenting another culture and contributing to that thick apprehension that impedes all opportunities for dialogue. What I meant by saying this is that in 2015 the question “Why are you so offended?” is cruel because it is so profoundly lazy. In the 21st century “Why are you so offended?” should not be the question we are interested in.

Brown’s work steps back from the question of offense, the stakes of which are so fraught for this Harvard MBA and for Kim Drew. Her question seems to be, “Is there a way to make the uninitiated aware of a stranger’s private moments without degrading the sovereignty of those moments?”  With the neutrality of her compositions she invites a discussion of intimacy. She invites black women to make others aware of the feelings that connect them and the importance of those feelings. But for those unaware, her images create the moment of pause needed to make curiosity fruitful. It provides a point from which to proceed to satisfying discussions. Brown finds a quiet way to bring a person like this Harvard student, a curious person at a loss for questions, into a conversation with a person like Kim Drew, a potential but apprehensive respondent.

White Americans may not believe that the subtle multiplicity of black hair is important, that it can hold the same intensity of political signification as a spiky leather jacket or a Confederate flag, simply because they have never considered it that way. Perhaps they rarely interrogate the respectability or professional quality of their natural hair. With her images Brown is asking us to come to an understanding not through touch (as the objects in her photographs look as if they have never been touched) but through talk. This talk can bring awareness to communal intimacies that would otherwise go unnoted; it might even open up discussions on other connections that go unconsidered.

The photographs of Nakeya Brown spark a list of questions. What is a hot comb? What is a weave? Why do you burn or boil the edges of braid extensions? Each of these are little entry points into the unexplored and overlooked private lives and private decisions of black people, black women specifically. By the power of communal recognition and remembrance the images make the black women in the audience aware of the wealth of anecdotes and information they have—information that can be accessed with the right questions. The favor that Brown’s photographs do for discussions of race and identity is that they become the objective spectacle so those with the knowledge do not have to be on display. These images give the uninitiated the tools and so the opportunity to come to a dialogue more than empty-handed.

You Can Touch My Hair perhaps offered an experience so immediately intimate that it failed to educate in the way it intended. But In Private Moments allows those who do not know and wish to learn both a respectful distance and a place to start.

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