Hair politics: Afro comb and Ellen Galagher

How many days we have looked ourselves in the mirror and thought: “oh my god, this is a bad hair day!”   But where all these ideas come from? Why some hairs are perceived as better than others to the point of determining our day and identities? The exhibition on Afro-Comb at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and the retrospective of Ellen Gallagher at Tate Modern, London, spark some capillary questions on the politics of hair.

The exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum: Origins of the Afro Comb: 6000 years of culture, politics and identity, focuses on an apparently simple cosmetic tool: the afro-comb. But things are not that simple…  The history of this artefact starts more than 6000 years ago where the apparently first comb made in bone was found in the site of Abydos in Egypt. Based on the extensive research of Dr. Sally-Ann Ashton, the evolution of the afro-comb can tell a story of status, culture, beauty, slavery, resistance, politics and identity… such a fascinating journey. For example, she traces combs as ritual and status objects for some ethic groups in Ghana and Nigeria, where exquisitely decorated combs tell a story of hedonism, status and power. Here are my drawings from the exhibition:


Gouache on Paper and iPhoto. Original image by Beatriz Acevedo.

This importance of combs transcends time and geographies. Slavery and its horrendous consequences attempted at diminishing the importance of these symbols, yet, the very characteristic of afro-hair has ensured the survival of the comb in all its representations. In modern times, several countries in Africa have produced and manufactured the afro-comb, and despite the growing diaspora (from slavery, colonisation and migration) it is was only until the 1970s that countries like the United Kingdom, started to manufacture combs. Now of course everything is ‘made in china’ including the afro-combs, but from time to time new designs with clear political and cultural shapes appear in the market.  In the USA of the 1960s the afro-comb was used as a symbol of resistance, and the iconic black fist became part of the design of the comb. Indeed, it is during this time that “black became beautiful” and thus the objects for enhancing this beauty came to be visible and the Afro became a proud indicator of identity amongst the discriminated communities in the USA.

Hair, in general, is more than a biological fact. The cultural theorist K. Mercer reminds us that:

“because [hair] is almost always groomed, prepared, but concealed and generally worked upon by human hands. Such practices socialise hair, making it the medium of significant statements about self and society and codes of value that bind them, or not… (Mercer, 1994: 100-1)

Hair is a very important part of my own identity. For years I showed off  my curly mane, as a symbol of freedom, youth and bohemian lifestyle. Despite my mother’s veiled and open criticisms to include a comb and a blow dry in my daily routines…   Now I use it shorter, still curly and untamed… however, when I am “performing” in ¨professional¨ settings (workplace, interviews, etc) I try to tame it and I then use my brush and hair dryer (sorry hair!).

Why do I torture my hair in those ways?  I think that somehow I believe that there is something about curly hair women that look a bit deranged, unconventional or too sassy. Glenn Close was a curly blonde-bunny boiler and Carrie Bradshaw was always at her craziest when her hair was curly, but on the same wave, Olivia Newton John became a vixen in curls.

The diversity of hairs in Latin America is a sign of our mestizo heritage, a mixture of black, indigenous culture and the already mixed Spanish heritage. But far from exhibiting this mixture with pride we spent half of our lives ¨straightening¨, ¨combing¨ and ¨dying¨ our hairs…pretending to be something we are not! It is important to realise that the politics of the body and the images of beauty come from European and North American magazines. As an avid reader of Vogue, I acknowledge that there are few black or mestizo models on the covers or inside the magazines. Even when there are amazing black women in powerful positions: Oprah, Michelle Obama or the beautiful actress Kerry Washington, who plays the role of Olivia Pope “problem fixer” in the addictive series of Scan their hair looks always straight…tamed… conforming.

And why should we bother with all of this? Well, because as reminded by Nigerian novelist, Chimananda Ngozi Adichie ‘Black women’s hair is political’!  Hair represents how the ideals of race, gender, class and beauty intersect. [McMillan, 2013] But it’s not only black women, or women. What about issues about grey hair and ageism? Hair is also a matter of class, as hairstyles are also identity markers of status, culture and consumption.  As the wonderful film HAIR sings aloud, hair is the symbol of the Aquarium Era Revolution: long hairs in rejection of traditional values of a consumerist society; dreadlocks and the political implications of Rastafarianism; Afros of the Black Power; Spiky hair of the Punk movement. Even the Big Hair of females executives in the 1980s became a trade mark for success in the workplace; whereas the grunge hair of the noughties and the rainbow boho-hair in the 1990s, talked about new aspirations amongst this generation.  In general, hair cannot be understood without referring to the historical context and the messages carried through those hairstyles.  McMillan, in his interesting article titled “Good Hair/Bad Hair” included in the exhibition catalogue, stresses the fact that the ideals of beauty are defined by some mainstream groups, many of those actually replicating certain white/western beauty ideal and thus denying black, old, (or any other different) forms of beauty. This is problematic as without wanting when we conform to those ideals we are reproducing the underlying assumptions of colonialism and slavery… that white is better and black (or any Other) is worthless, non-civilised and ultimately inferior!

So hair becomes a target for dispute: in some religious communities, women were punished by shaving their hair… and the hair is still a common place for controversy. For instance, the academic Mary Beard was unfairly criticised because of her hair style in the history documentaries of the BBC: nobody really questioned her knowledge or the engaging way she shows the ancient world of Romans… and what’s the problem? she looks like a normal  lady with a gorgeous hair!  On the other hand, the  amazing singer Sinead O’Connor shaved her hair as a way of protest against the porno-fication of music industry and female singers.

Even in a more domestic settings, a change in the hairstyle can announce a new attitude, a new lover or a new way of being in the world; hair washing days can be a ritual in our lives and sometimes our hairstylists can be our confessors…  And here I am not mentioning the politics of waxing, trimming and styling other types of hairs… (auch!)

The focus on manipulating and treating hair and face are addressed by some scholars as ways of disciplining the body (oh yes, here it comes my dear Michel Foucault). So hair, clearly falls into this disciplining territory, becoming a very visible aspect of the way in which culture determine who we are or how we must look.  In a more recent interpretation of this disciplinary regime, the the USA artist Ellen Galagher exhibiting at Tate Modern (see Womens at Tate) examines the way in which marketing techniques for hair and skin products were actually promoting certain ideas of beauty amongst the black population in the 1930s and 1970s:

In her series of wig-map grid collages, Double NaturalPOMP-BANG, andeXelento, Gallagher has appropriated and incorporated found advertisements for hair and beauty products from the 1930s to the late 1970s from publications such as EbonyOur World and Black Stars. These advertisements fostered ideals in black beauty through wigs and hair adornments, which Gallagher has then recontextualised, collaging the Afro wig elements and embellishing them with plasticine. As she comments: ‘The wig ladies are fugitives, conscripts from another time and place, liberated from the “race” magazines of the past. But again, I have transformed them, here on the pages that once held them captive.’


What is interesting is the amount of products aiming at moulding an ideal of beauty. It is very ambiguous: on one hand, the magazines are clearly directed to the black population, thus, acknowledging certain identity; on the other hand, the advertisements sell “lighter skin” products; wigs; hair cosmetics and other fashion items. What I really find fascinating about ART is that when altering these “everyday objects” – like magazines- that contradiction is made visible.   In this intervention, the eyes in the adverts are hollow, empty, which in  combination with the yellow-wigs make these images quite abrasive and aggressive. The same type of aggression that is done to the [black] female body: hair and skin. And this is for me the power of art!

Another important topic in this exhibition is the artist interpretation and contestation of how the story of black people is positioned, told or presented. Moreover, these magazines become key historical evidence of how black people are domesticated and disciplined (Yes, again dear old Foucault comes by to sniff!). By altering magazines using yellow plasticine, the artist is somehow smacking what is presented as black history. Indeed, as reminded by the curator of the exhibition, yellow is a colour of exclusion. The academic Mary Evans in Times Higher Education comments:

Gallagher’s own account is that she has presented her works, all of them concerned with the presence and absence of black history, in a non-chronological order that she likens to the repetitions of jazz, in which a musical narrative has a constant theme but returns to it in a variety of different ways. It is this variety of ways, and the absence of an over-determined understanding and portrayal of the past, that make this exhibition so engaging.

While Gallagher focuses on the “ideals” of black beauty, it is clear that HAIR takes a top place in how those ideals are materialised in the physical appearance of black folks.  In responding to these two exhibitions I decided to create a series of “hairy days” images using the app MyPaint on my iPhone. As part of my “being an artist” journey I decided to stretch the idea of “good hair/bad hair” and create different possibilities. This is also a way of engaging in a more interactive way with exhibitions… I normally make drawings and notes, but I think that any media can activate imagination and develop ideas.

What I found most interesting of drawing and writing about Hair (in the context of these two exhibitions) is that such an apparently simple and superficial issue involves a wide variety of ramifications.  Hair, as it was 6000 years ago, will keep on telling the story of human kind. For the  21st century,  a time capsule would not be enough for the hairdryers, straighteners, and thousand of cosmetic products used to tame, clear, dye or treat our hair. Not to mention the economic diversity of human hair:  the growing market hungry for hair extensions and the trade of real human hair that sums up £6 million in the United Kingdom only. Where all this natural hair come from? most scary… whose hair is being used? Just to have a look on the documentary by Jamelia in BBC Three (available in YouTube), is enough to make your hair to stand! And hair does not end on top of your head because there are other uses of human hair such as food; fashion; and even as a mopper for oil spillage!

So next day I washed my hair and left it au natural... when I got to the office somebody said… “Oh you have big hair!” I smiled and proudly shook my mane!


Ashton, S.A. Ed. (2013) Origins of the Afro Comb: 6000 years of culture, politics and identity. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Fanon, F. (1970) Black Skin, White Masks. London: Paladin.

Mercer, K. (1994) Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies. London: Routledge

McMillan, (2013) Bad Hair/Good Hair, in Ashton, S.A. Ed. (2013) Origins of the Afro Comb: 6000 years of culture, politics and identity. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.


One thought on “Hair politics: Afro comb and Ellen Galagher

  1. Pingback: Jane Glynn is “Out in the Woods”: Uncanny fairy tales and the Wild (wise) woman | beatriz acevedo art

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