Meet 3 contemporary artists who use innovative techniques to revel in the beauty of black hair
Black hair is – and has always functioned as – a form of identity. In early African cultures, hairstyles signified a person’s tribe, social status or family background. However, the pernicious effects of colonialism later changed the way black hair was perceived. In the new hierarchy that emerged, European features were valued and frizzy hair and coils were ridiculed.
For centuries, negative perceptions associated with natural hair forced black people to change their hair to conform to a white majority as a form of survival. Altering their natural hair texture has helped black people move more easily in society under the white gaze; a straight and smooth look aided in social mobility and job security. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s, when the Black Power movement emerged, that black people began to reclaim their lost heritage and publicly celebrate their beauty.
Over the decades, artists have found inspiration in black hair – from Lorna Simpson”Wigs” to Nigerian photographer JD’ Okhai Ojeikere’s documentation of intricate, sculptural braids to the celebratory portraits of Zanele Muholi. The three contemporary practitioners featured below—all with family ties to vital barber and beauty salon traditions—also use shape, form, and texture to amplify the beauty of black hair without altering it.
At a time when standards of dress are changing, the definition of professionalism is being debated, and rules about natural hair are being regulated, the work of these young artists is even more timely and necessary.
Shaina McCoy (b. 1993), a Minneapolis-based figurative painter, works primarily in oil to highlight the importance of everyday people in her community. His iconic faceless figures force you to pay attention to the features and surroundings of his portraits to fully understand his subjects. Referring to old photographs of his family, the self-taught artist uses a variety of materials such as paintbrushes or toothpicks to create layered textured surfaces. In her “B is For” series (2021), McCoy captures the essence of the young black girl by focusing on traditional hairstyles. Bobbles, barrettes and bows – “B” is for small hair accessories that resonate universally in black American homes. Through the iconography and color palette, McCoy is able to convey a sense of nostalgia by recreating these familiar looks. McCoy told Artnet News in a recent interview, “Hairstyles allow us to be ourselves and have the individuality to embrace our beauty, because for so many years we were told we couldn’t not.”
Barbershops and hair salons have traditionally played a huge role in black culture beyond just grooming and physical maintenance. McCoy’s father worked as a barber, and she recalls the impact the barbershop’s sense of community and family had on her during her younger years. To highlight this stage of life, McCoy said, “It was a good show to air, because it’s a common story that I can share with the world again, among black girls. It’s important to create a series like this, to have mirrors, so that I can reflect the times and reflect the people. I don’t want our people to be erased. I want people to know we’re here and we’re not going anywhere. McCoy is currently preparing his fourth solo exhibition, “Cadillac4,” at Galeria Duarte Sequeira in Braga, Portugal, which opens April 9.
Ashante Light up
Rhythm and repetition serve as a form of recovery and remembrance for Connecticut artist Ashanté Kindle (b. 1990), who celebrates the beauty of black hair in abstract paintings that resemble natural, stylized hair textures. Recreating patterns like an S-loop or waves, Kindle invents a visual language easily recognizable in the black community. Working with thick-bodied acrylic paints, Kindle uses a variety of different tools, including hair brushes from the Sally Beauty Supply store, painting in strokes to add hair-like texture to her paintings. Her practice is partly inspired by her aunt, a beautician; comparing art and hairdressing, she sees “how beauticians give a part of themselves to each client” the same way she does with each painting.
Kindle’s all-black series amplifies the smugness of the black community; as she said in a recent Zoom interview with Artnet News, “I use all the black paint because it’s enough. I’m not necessarily trying to be more sophisticated. Black is enough, black men is enough… To identify as black is more to do with a culture and a connection with people, even outside of this country. Darkness exists all over the world, and it’s something we all share together. Kindle’s works are about the freedom, confidence and privilege it takes to be able to wear your hair freely without restraints. Her current exhibition, “A Dream Transformed,” is on view at the University of Connecticut’s Jorgensen Gallery — where she is completing her MFA — in Storrs through March 25.
Modeling her distinctive sculptures on close friends or even herself, Baltimore-based artist Murjoni Merriweather (b. 1996) emphasizes the beauty of distinguished facial features and hair texture, largely to combat harmful stereotypes that expose his real-life subjects to racial profiling beyond his studio walls. Currently working between two sculpted styles – raw ceramic and ceramic with synthetic braids bonded to the surface – Merriweather explores the dualities and complexities of the black community. Trained at the Maryland Institute College of Art, the artist incorporates beauty and pop culture into her work by adding eyelash extensions, earrings and grilles to her sculptures, making them look almost lifelike. In a recent interview with Artnet News, she said she deliberately works on a larger scale so that her work can take up the space it deserves: “I like my sculptures to be large. I want us to take spaces, because we belong here and we deserve to be everywhere we are.
Beyond the imposing scale of the works, she is also sensitive to where and how they are presented. She added: “I want my sculptures to stand out and be tall, and I want people to look at them at eye level or higher – I don’t want people to look down on my sculptures, because I don’t want to not that we get scorned Merriweather is currently exhibiting in “Hues” at the Hannah Traore Gallery in New York until April 9.
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