Every Sunday, I twist my hair into complex, braided styles. I’ve been doing this since I was 13 years old, following what I thought were the current trends of natural and corn-rowed tresses. But, as I learned recently at the Precious Hair exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, these looks can be over 2,000 years old.
The Branly has previously featured exhibitions on samurai warriors, food in China, tackling the idea of the ‘savage’ other, and now, hair. The latter begs the question: is the human obsession with our tresses a mere frivolity or an exploration and continuation of cultural memory?
Precious Hair boasts 280 exhibition pieces, including centuries old shrunken heads exhibited next and contemporary art installations featuring artists like photographer Annie Leibovitz and Nigerian photographer J.D. Okhai Ojeikere. Ojeikere explores Yoruba women and their plaits, which are outward expressions of devotion to God. Depending on the style, they can represent Oshun, the Orisha, or “goddess,” of love, seductive and provocative. Or Elegba, the “god” of the crossroads, featuring neatly sectioned parts of hair. I’d like to think my cornrows were representative of both of these, though my strands seemed more unruly than seductive, my parts a bit more fuzzy than neat.
The exhibit delves into European hair frivolities in great detail. Blondes were often regaled as perfection, only to be later reviled as airy and daft. Red heads were seen as untrustworthy, perhaps because one representation of Judas, the biblical man who betrayed Jesus Christ to his crucifiers, depicts him with red hair. Brunettes were seen as brave and crafty. In times of war, or love, European women would cut off strips of hair, molding them into their family crests to be preserved in a locket kept by their beloved.
And while all of that history was great, I was aching to find more context behind the African hair featured. Thankfully, 18th century busts sculpted by anonymous Europeans fascinated by the Senegalese and Congolese men and women they encountered were also on display. Rites of passage ceremonies in Togo and Brazil highlighted the humbling and maturing experience of shaving a young person’s head, preparing the youth to emerge into the next phase of life. It was here that a friend and I delved into a hot debate about our own “big chops,” analyzing whether going natural was our own initiation into a type of rite of passage, and maybe, a continuation of 2,000 years of cultural memory. Agreeing that perhaps the trendiness of some’s motives behind the BC may not be the type of ornate process usually indicative of a rites of passage, my tiny plaits, however, were an archive of our cultural memory.
How to get there
Covered in exotic flora and nestled near the Eiffel Tower, the Branly is the Parisian answer to the British Museum. After you’ve finished snapping pictures of the tourist-y iron lady, you can duck behind the large glass partitions that conceal an uncommon sight this side of the Seine, a lush garden. Amidst winding plots of greenery and gorgeous light rods jutting out of the earth, criss crossed paths lead toward the museum’s entrance, as well as a cheerful gift shop and a cozy café.
Visitors can reach the Branly’s exhibitions by climbing a sloping pathway, lit only by a literal river of the words ‘welcome’ in several languages, spilling down towards the lobby. The very modern museum is complemented by its non-European art, including ancient artifacts from the South Pacific, Asian, African and North American indigenous communities.
The “Precious Hair” (or Art of Hair) at the Musee du Quai Branly runs until July 13, 2013. The exhibit is free for those under 25 (if you’re an EU resident), otherwise entry fees are between 10-15 euros.
– Shamira Muhammad