Chimamanda Adichie does with narrative what Nakeya Brown does with photography. Both artists are captivated by the relationship between blackness, hair, and femininity. Whether both women know each other or not, it is certainly nice to think of their work as being in conversation. For Nayeka, hair is political. “By choosing to wear my hair in it’s natural state,” writes Nayeka, “I made a political decision.” Chimamanda makes a similar declaration in the many interviews after her third novel, Americanah, was published.
Chimamanda got us talking and even fighting about hair. Who knew that we could all get so worked up and bothered about hair, which has really being Chimamanda’s point all along. That hair, especially for black women, is never just hair, never just a private matter. Hair is always more than just hair. Hair speaks its own language and reveals things about the assumptions that belie our sense of beauty and its relationship to race and the feminine body.
I’d say though that I like Nakeya’s politics of hair better than Chimamanda’s. Nakeya doesn’t appear keen on being prescriptive. For her, it is not about whether straight extensions are bad and kinky is good. It’s about producing work that captures the significance placed on hair in black female worlds. She is captivated by the fact that black women wear all hair-types—something that she doesn’t seem to read as a sign of racial insecurity but as having infinite artistic and expressive possibilities. In response to the tendency she observes in many black women to think of straight hair as “good hair,” Chimamanda, in my view, insists that natural hair is “good hair.” Perhaps it’s time for us to reconsider what we term as the measure of beauty or “good hair.” This is what I’d like to take from Nakeya’s work. Perhaps we are at the point where the goodness of a hair need not be defined by its straightness or its kinkiness but by some other hybrid or more open formation.
I love that for both women, hair is tied to feminine self discovery. Chimamanda has said in interviews that coming to America and experiencing various ways of being black is partly responsible for her decision to go natural. Here is how Nakeya puts her own hair-story: “Through the years that act of chopping off my hair has led me down an ongoing path of self-discovery and self-awareness, in respect to how I choose to identify myself.”
I just wanted to share Nakeya’s work with you because it adds to the conversation about hair, blackness, and femininity in significant ways. Most of the conversations we’ve had so far have revolved around Chimamanda’s novel. Nakeya allows us to encounter a set of ideas explored through the novel in another media. She helps us imagine the question of hair differently but in a way that compliments Chimamanda’s questions about hair and race, which got many African women thinking for the first time about hair as a political issue.
Let me end with a quote from Chimamanda’s novel:
“Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You’re caged in. Your hair rules you. You didn’t go running with Curt today because you don’t want to sweat out this straightness. You’re always battling to make your hair do what it wasn’t meant to do.” — Ifemelu in Americanah
And one from Nakeya’s blurb on her work:
I like to think of my work as inclusive to all Black hair styles/types – kinky, straight, synthetic, human, weaves, wigs, and tracks, because we as collective wear all. It’s in our beauty shops, hair salons, and bathroom cabinets. It’s a part of our history. It’s a part of contemporary culture. It’s a part of our conversations. It’s a part of our daily lives. I’ve been told many times “your hair is your face”, so it’s something that we must tend to, and care for. It’s something that we must treat with sensitivity when describing, but should not allow it to incite insecurities. In my eyes, it’s the single most visible and powerful feature on the black female form and I enjoy creating work about it because it is so dynamic. I make photos that display the illusory beliefs of beauty in a visually stimulating way. I want them to be a catalyst for discussion about us and our experiences. — Nakeya Brown
These images are from Nakeya’s collection titled Refutation of Good Hair. See more of her work HERE.