In August 2016, a South African secondary school student, Zulaikha Patel, made news headlines when she led a protest at her White-owned school in Pretoria after black girls were ordered to straighten their hair and not wear afros.
The school authorities at the prestigious Pretoria High School For Girls, were accused of racially forcing black girls to chemically straighten their hair and not have afros that were deemed untidy. The White teachers told the black learners that their hair was “exotic” and that their afros needed to be tamed.
The 13-year-old Patel led fellow black students donning afro hairstyles and braids in protest at the school to voice their anger against the discriminatory hair policy.
“The issue of my hair has been a thing that’s followed me my entire life. Even in primary, I was told my hair is not natural, it’s exotic, my afro was not wanted or anything like that and then the issue followed me to high school,” Patel told CNN.
The hair policies at the school were eventually amended, and now one wearing her hair in its natural state is no longer a crime.
Pretoria High School for Girls, which was founded in 1902, was for Whites only but now admits all races following the end of apartheid in 1994. Today, black students and White teachers make up the majority of learners and teachers, respectively.
Black hair has remained a source of contention in the cultural debate as to what defines beauty between the African and European races.
Black hair has caused a row for Whites since the slavery and colonial times. Through colonial violence, the Europeans passed racist hair and dress codes that are still entrenched in today’s education systems in Africa.
For example, some schools in Uganda and Kenya still require their learners to shave off or keep their hair short. The natural African hair is viewed as untidy and unclean; to some it is a source of shame and ridicule – resulting in punishment for whoever has long hair in school. Some teachers claim these rules control and prevent lice from spreading and hair is manageable when it is short.
The decolonisation of African hair will be among the topics that will be discussed and displayed at an exhibition and research project titled Connecting Afro Futures. Fashion x Hair x Design that will open at Kunstgewerbe museum Berlin (The Museum of Decorative Arts) in Germany on August 23.
At the moment, Generation Now is breaking up and subverting the hegemony of the “Western fashion system.” No longer will African culture serve solely as a source of inspiration for Western fashion designers.
Closely associated with the topic of fashion is the topic of hair. Like fashion, hair, and with it “African” bodies, was a central arena for the exercise of colonial power; hair was disciplined, regimented, and subjected to Western ideals of beauty.
Today, traditional African hairstyles—which to some extent vanished into obscurity as a consequence of colonialism—are being disseminated and made available once again. At the same time, they are being used with confidence in forms of play with hair as a mode of the creative expression of identity formation, with hair also increasingly shifting into focus as an artistic material, the exhibition organisers say.
The Kunstgewerbe museum invited a number of participants from Africa to develop installation projects on the themes of fashion and hair and, at the same time, to initiate a new perspective on the museum context.
The artists/fashion designers that will feature at the exhibition include Anderson Lamula (fashion designer, UK/Uganda); Meschac Gaba (artist, Benin); Jose Hendo (fashion designer, UK/Uganda); Paris Adama (fashion designer, Senegal); Allen Nabukenya (artist/fashion designer, Uganda) and Adinan Mulindwa and Ali Musinguzi (fashion designers, Uganda); with further work by: Diana Ejaita (illustrator, Germany); Darlyne Komukama (artist; Uganda); Ken Aicha Sy (Artist/curator, Senegal), among others.
The curators include Claudia Banz, Cornelia Lund, and Beatrace Angut Oola.
Connecting Afro Futures organised various stations aimed at exchanging fashion. In November 2018, the project started with a one-week workshop at the Kunstgewerbemuseum where the participants met in Berlin. The workshop discussed the installation projects and questions related to global fashion, museum and collection policies, as well as decolonial discourses.
The curators travelled to Senegal and Uganda for intermediate presentations and discussions of the installations planned for Berlin in order to link the Connecting Afro Futures project with the local cultural scene.
In Dakar, Senegal, on March 22, Ken Aicha Sy of the local cooperation partner Wakh’Art presented the work Baadaye (Swahili for future), a photographic and videographic research on Afrofuturist visions for the African continent at the Residence Vives Voix. The founder of Dakar Fashion Week and Black Fashion Week, Adama Paris, opened her installation Shameless Afro Hair on March 28, at the Pullmann Hotel in Dakar.
In her installation, Adama questions beauty ideals and norms for hair and fashion in an African context. It is entirely devoted to afro hair, natural, extensions, braids or wigs, to change the story, to express a new aesthetic, that of a beauty without complex. It is a way to see afro hair without shame.
“Wearing afro natural hair is often considered a committed, almost political action. Women who adopt this style are considered closer to their black or African culture, unlike women who feel obliged to smooth their hair texture or wear wigs, weaves to get more easily and to better evolve in society, dominated by Caucasian aesthetics, a way to almost hide themselves,” Adama says.
“Afro hair is only about natural hair or hair extensions known as weaves, braids. It can be also considered as being part of it. This debate has been going on since slavery was abolished. The Afro women among themselves have classified and denigrated themselves according to the way they wear their hair,” Adama adds.
In Baadaye, Sy undertakes a photographic and videographic research into Afro-futuristic visions for the African continent: What will Africans of the year 2200 look like?
The project hub in Kampala included the presentation of Connecting Afro Futures at the Goethe-Zentrum Kampala (Uganda German Cultural Society) on April 23. Ugandan fashion designer Anderson Lamula exhibited her planned installation at the 32 Degrees East Arts Trust in Kampala on April 25.
Lamula’s mixed-media installation, The Perfect Stereotype, links the historical women’s bustle dress to stereotypical colour assignments in fashion and the afro. It is about challenging and questioning social rules that emerge from our own communities, but also ones we impose on ourselves.
According to Lamula, the word perfect is symbolic to a woman in her purest and most natural form.
“Being of Ugandan descent, I am continuously carrying threads of my heritage, culture and traditional dress. The use of afro hair is an important element because it carries historical value that needs to be retold in order to normalise this hair type.”
As to why afro hair is important in her The Perfect Stereotype installation, Lamula said: “Because it goes beyond the ideal stereotype, it challenges what you would associate with a black woman; her hair, her choice of clothes and intellect. It tells a story. It is trying to challenge the concept of what Africans should wear.”
Jose Hendo’s work Bark cloth Connecting Afro Futures Using the Signs of the Now deals with questions of sustainability in contemporary fashion. With the use of the traditional Ugandan material “bark cloth”, she pursues her motto: reduce, reuse, recycle.
Meschac Gaba’s wig sculptures, which are designed after Berlin architectural icons, will be presented in a performance at the opening before they find their place in the exhibition.
Solving community problems
Nabukenya is a visual artist who uses fashion as a voice to solve community problems. She works with industrial waste: polythene bags, car tyres and discarded sandals, transforming them into intricate artworks combining techniques learned from her mother, a weaver of traditional palm mats.
Nabukenya, who operates under her brand name Njola Impressions, will present her installation Muyunga (Association) coat, bag and boots, 2019.
Mulindwa and Musinguzi will present Cocks Comb and Ngabo under their fashion brand Tondo.
According to Mulindwa and Musinguzi, Cocks Comb was inspired by the Boko tribe from DR Congo, where the cock’s comb symbolises members of the society who have positively contributed to the wellbeing of the society and are seen as heroes. This culture emulates how a cock takes on a leadership and courageous role in the chicken setting.
Ngabo (shield) is a symbol of peace, protection, spirituality and happiness that has been used all over the world in various ceremonies as a civilisation shaping tool.
The installations described will be complemented in the exhibition by further works and research on hair and fashion in an African context.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a magalogue designed by Leni Charles (Vienna, Austria). In addition to numerous images and fashion shootings, the magalogue offers essays on fashion and hair in an African context, statements on the subject of African futures, and interviews on the subject of African hair.
As to the importance of holding this exhibition and research project, Lund says: “It introduces fashion and hair in a design perspective to a design museum/museum of applied arts, where they should naturally have their ‘home’, but where they have not been considered relevant so far for reasons that lie within the history of the museum as a Western institution. In this sense, the project is part of the process of decolonising Western museums and re-writing design histories that have so far been written almost exclusively from a Western perspective. This process of reconsidering and re-writing histories is a larger movement, which has started much earlier, for example, for pop music, or in the arts.”
“Connecting Afro Futures, Fashion x Hair x Design also creates a link with the German Afro diaspora. Actors from different backgrounds have been integrated into the project from the beginning on, they have been part of the first project workshop in Berlin, they are part of the catalogue (or magalogue, as it will take the shape of a magazine), and they will be part of the events that will accompany the exhibition. We, of course, also aim at addressing the members of the Afro diaspora as visitors,” Lund says.
As to why this project is fusing fashion, hair and design, Lamula says: “As a designer /artist, this is the niche of my work. I use hair within my work because I feel this aesthetic is an important element representing deep roots to my culture and heritage. It has personal connection with my own experiences, but also is an important story to be told as it is such a topical issue around the world.”
“The exhibition is about fashion, hair and design because it connects together. Contemporary African fashion is shaping the international fashion industry and in the art context, fashion is a medium to communicate culture. An exhibition about African fashion and hair is very important and required. The next generation is proud of their heritage and have so much self-confidence to wear traditional African hair styles, so that it is a must to educate them about African history,” Oola says.
About the show
The exhibition that will run from August 24 to December 1, is organised by Connecting Afro Futures in partnership with Fashion Africa Now, Fluctuating Images and Kunstgewerbe museum Berlin, and funded by the TURN Fund of the German Federal Cultural Foundation.
According to the organisers, fashion constitutes a system of rules of a highly singular kind, and functions as a trendsetter for social change. Currently, an innovative generation of African fashion designers is engaged in rethinking contemporary “African” fashion while establishing new designer hubs throughout the continent. It is, however, not solely a question of aesthetic aspects; even more important are forms of cultural and political engagement with an emphatically decolonised self-understanding.