Ngozi Schommers extends the conversation around hair and identity in “The Way We Mask” – Toni Kan

On Wednesday November 13, 2019, award winning BBC journalist, Nancy Kacungira writing on twitter via her handle @kacungira tweeted:

So many people: You can’t be a news anchor and wear braids.

Me: (She posted a photo of herself wearing long braids on television.)

Why does hair matter? Why do we care whether hair is long and silky, short and kinky, afro and full?

In ancient Greece, a shaved head was a marker for slaves, while many armies shaved off the hair of captured soldiers as a mark of defeat and humiliation. Patrick Barkham writing in The Guardian notes that “Among skinheads, a shorn head was a symbol of aggression. Among lesbians, a shaved head, or short hair at least, came to be a symbol of their abandoning of traditional man-pleasing femininity. With time, a shaven head became fashionable, among men at least, and skinheads eventually lost their shock value.”

The politics and significance of hair is millennia old. Joan of Arc famously wore her hair short because she was a soldier and wanted to keep lecherous male soldiers at bay. In 2007, Britney Spears cut off her hair inside Esther’s Haircutting Studio in California in what would have had Instagram in a tizzy if it happened today.

In many African societies, close family members are mandated to shave their hair when a patriarch dies. New brides go to their new husbands with hair coiffed in the latest fashion and a woman’s trousseau is, for many cultures, incomplete without a comb.

When India Arie sang “I am not my hair” little did she know that the award winning author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would, many years later, devote almost an entire novel to theorizing on the importance and significance of the black female hair.

“My full and cool hair would work if I were interviewing to be a backup singer in a jazz band, but I need to look professional for this interview, and professional means straight is best but if it’s going to be curly then it has to be the white kind of curly, loose curls or, at worst, spiral curls but never kinky.”- Americanah

Ngozi Schommers’ solo exhibition which ran November 2 – 14 (extended by popular demand to November 17, 2019) is a compelling meditation on what hair means and signifies for an African woman living and working across cultures.

Curated by Wura Natasha Ogunji, an artist whose works bear an uncanny similarity to Ms. Schommers’, the solo which features miniature drawings and paintings on paper as well as wall mounted 3D pieces and installations, extends the conversation which began many decades ago by Okhai Ojeikere, around not just the aesthetics of the coiffure but also what hair means in an increasingly multicultural world.

While Ojeikere’s works favoured a more aesthetic approach in his documenting of what has been described as “ornate hairstyles and headdresses”, Ngozi Schommer’s drawings and paintings, collages and installations collected under the handle, “The Way We Mask” interrogate our idea of hair from aesthetic, cultural, personal and political perspectives. The exhibition, therefore, becomes in many ways an artist’s way of using art to challenge perceived assumptions.

She re-imagines the notion of hair as cultural identity, racial pride and aesthetic statement. It continues with and furthers the conversation begun by Okhai Ojeikere, extended by Chimamanda and many others and which refuses to be stilled.

“The Way We Mask” is, in that sense, both contemporaneous and antiquated, riding a thin line between nostalgia and extant notions of hair as both personal and political signposting what is beautiful, feminine and acceptable to disparate gazes.

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