“by Sonia ClarkBlack hair flagIs a striking image. The four foot tall fabric artwork is painted with the infamous Confederation Flag – but sewn into its fabric are the traditional African American hairstyles of the Bantu knot and cornrow, which make up the stars and stripes of the American flag. The play captures the pain and joy of the African American experience in building our nation.
The juxtaposition in Clark’s art resonated with Tameka Ellington, former associate dean of the College of the Arts and associate professor in the School of Fashion at Kent State University. âHaving said that, black people are the reason our country is so stable, so this country is our country,â Ellington explained.
The “flag of black hair” was one of many works of art explored in Ellington’s speech “TEXTURES: The History and Art of Black Hair” on September 3rd. The seminar was co-sponsored by Tasha Lewis, Associate Professor in the Department of Fiber Science & Apparel Design, and was part of the Fashion & Social Justice lecture series.
Ellington presented the lecture at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology ahead of the Sept. 10 opening of his new exhibit, also known as “TEXTURES”, at the Kent State University Museum. The exhibition synthesizes research on history, fashion, art and visual culture to re-evaluate the âhair historyâ of peoples of African descent and features combs, products and tools alongside works by artists such as James Van Der Zee, Sonya Clark and Lorna Simpson. It is divided into three sections: community and memory, hair politics and black joy.
âI wanted to deconstruct the idea of ââwhat dark hair means to our society,â Ellington explained.
Ellington said she was motivated to create the exhibit after studying the trauma black women face with the forced assimilation of white / Western beauty standards, such as straightening hair and lightening skin. . It ranges from financial costs and salon time to health effects like alopecia or hair breakage from constant chemical weathering. The concept of “good hair” being straighter hair leads to what Ellington called “texturism”, or the idea that Back people with straighter hair are more beautiful, more accessible, smarter, etc. .
However, Ellington didn’t want to portray black hair as the only source of pain. In order to celebrate dark hair in all its dimensions, Ellington and his co-curator, Joseph Underwood, have categorized the âTEXTURESâ into three sections.
The first, “Community and Memory”, is a tribute to the relational nature of hair care. This section includes artifacts such as an ancient Egyptian figure of two women combing a child’s hair and paintings by Annie Lee from the Black Beauty Salon.
The second, “Hair Politics,” features the “Black Hair Flag” alongside an original research poster by Angela Davis featuring the civil rights activist’s iconic Afro.
And finally, there’s âBlack Joyâ, the section that âcelebrates self-esteem and cultural prideâ. Among this collection are a degree from Poro College, the first school of black beauty, and the tools of Willie Morrow, the inventor of the Afro pick and a friend of many prominent civil rights leaders. It also features modern art that depicts dark hair as a centerpiece of culture and a marvel of structure and architecture.
âDark hair has been innovative across culture,â Ellington said at his talk. Ellington explained in his speech that pain and joy are not mutually exclusive. âTEXTURESâ is both a sober recognition of history and a radical ode to its natural beauty. As she explained during her talk at Cornell, “TEXTURES” is a celebration of creativity that has been underestimated by society for too long.
The Ellington Lecture was co-sponsored by the Stephen H. Weiss Lewis Fellowship, as well as the Central New York Humanities Corridor through an award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Department of Fiber Science and clothing design, Department of History, The Public History Initiative. and the Cornell Fashion + Textile collection.
Past speakers in the Fashion & Social Justice lecture series include Sabrina Strings, associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine; and Abiola Onabule, a London-based fashion designer with a master’s degree in womenswear from Central Saint Martins.
Ayesha Chari ‘24 is a media associate student at the College of Human Ecology.