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Networks and Voids: Modern Interpretations of Nigerian Hairstyles and Headdresses

The Omenka Gallery is proud to present Networks and Voids, Modern Interpretations of Nigerian Hairstyles and Headdresses, an exhibition of work by celebrated Nigerian photographer, ‘Okhai Ojeikere (b. 1930) and one of the fast-rising names on the continent, American artist, Gary Stephens (b. 1962) who lives and works in Johannesburg.

The works presented in varying media of photography, linoleum prints and charcoal on paper, are united by the central theme of Nigerian hairstyles and headdresses (geles) fashioned from hand-woven aso-oke and expensive imported textiles including damask and brocade. 1 The show draws its title from the variegated patterns formed by the network of interlocking branches of finely plaited hair and the open spaces or voids left in their wake. These patterns are repeated in the weaves of the headdresses, where they give the impression of low relief embroidery and mimic matching lace outfits populated by open spaces. This notion of interconnectedness is further accentuated by the fact that though the artists are separated along racial lines, location and age, Stephens being considerably younger, they are brought together through several points of investigation of these intriguing art forms.

Both artists offer insight into Lagos society and successfully capture the creativity and opulence of social gatherings. The history of these fabrics is not only tied to the complex web of trade and negotiation between Africa and the West, but is related to socio-political development in Nigeria’s recent past during the oil boom years. Today, the outfits produced from these luxurious fabrics are an expression of prosperity.

Regarded as an art form, geles require skill and patience to construct ̶ the larger the volume, the more elaborate the look. In Yoruba tradition, the way a gele is tied indicates a woman’s marital status. A gele’s end leaning to the right indicates she is married, while leaning to the left means she is single. In contemporary society, they do not have any defined cultural connotation. 2

Historian, Elisha P. Renne asserts that by referring to some of these textiles as laces, Nigerian consumers emphasize the open, lace-like perforations, thus making reference to a range of textiles (embroidered, painted, or cut) and body art practices (tattooing, cutting, and painting) that utilize a similar combination of figured and textured designs placed in open spaces. 3

This concept also lends itself favourably to African hairstyles. In traditional African society, they had immense cultural and social significance. Historians assert that in the early 15th century, hairstyles conveyed messages to most parts of West Africa (Tharps and Byrd 2001). 4 During the slave trade, hairstyles played a major part in communicating age, marital status, ethnic identity, religion, wealth, and rank. For example, the young Wolof girls of Senegal partially shaved their heads as an outward symbol that they were not courting. 5 Igbo wives, on losing their husbands shaved off all their hair in mourning. The Karamo of Nigeria are recognizable by the unique coiffure of a single tuft of hair, while their widowed women leave their hair unkempt during the mourning period to be unattractive to other men. In contrast, community leaders donned elaborate hairstyles, and royalty would often wear a hat or headpiece, as a status symbol. 6 At the Osun Festival at Osogbo, the young teenager who bears the ritual calabash has her hair dressed in the style called ikpako. 7

Hair also held great religious significance in traditional African society. Just as hair was elevated for social and aesthetic reasons, its spiritual connection also served to heighten its significance. Some thought communication to the divine passed through the hair, believing a single strand of hair could be used to cast spells or inflict harm. 8  According to Mohamed Mbodj, an associate professor of history at Columbia University and a native of Dakar, Senegal “The hair is the most elevated point of your body, which means it is the closest to the divine.” 9

Similarly, these hairstyles are as important as the hair itself. In Yoruba tradition, there are three different techniques employed; Irun ki ko-knotting with thread; Irun didi-plaiting with thread; and Irun biba-braiding. 10 Among the works on display are Ojeikere’s Onile go go ro (skyscraper), Suku oni di di and Suku Sinero ki ko. The suku (basket) is a popular form of braiding in Nigeria even among non-Yoruba communities. Here, the hair runs from the forehead to the nape of the neck or forms a rump on top of the head. In the past, this hairstyle was limited to the wives of the king. 11

The study of black American history reveals that the slave trade inflicted physical damage as well as deep emotional and psychological scars, the most devastating, still reflected today is that done to the image. This is especially true as it relates to hair and skin colour, as they both became parameters for determining race. The slave owners often described African hair as “woolly” and likened them to animals. 12 These and several other terms were used to justify the inhumane treatment meted out to slaves. After years of repression and witnessing those with “straight hair” and “light skin” afforded better opportunities, the slaves began to internalize these words. 13

Against this background, the drawings and photographs of various hairstyles by Ojeikere and Stephens become veritable sites to assert the African identity and challenge these stereotypes. The works then assume greater importance and new meanings along two major lines of thoughts; first when viewed against the preponderance of imported human and synthetic hair and skin lightening beauty products, and second in documenting an ebbing culture. In modern times, the social significance and personal meaning of traditional hairstyles have been eliminated and forgotten. Instead, ancient styles are re-born, with many variations linking them more with fashion than aesthetic feeling.

At first glance, it seems rather disconcerting that the artists employ contemporary media and techniques to engage issues of preservation. Perhaps the similarities between the artists end here. Since 1968, Ojeikere began to develop series of photographs exploring Nigerian culture. The Hairstyles and Headdresses are his best-known and most significant bodies of work. Importantly, these series are shot in black-and-white and largely with an analogue camera, which lends to the cultural and historical significance of the work. Time is at once frozen and the ephemeral nature of the hairstyles and headgears, which evolve with fashion trends, is preserved.

All these hairstyles are ephemeral. I want my photographs to be noteworthy traces of them. I always wanted to record moments of beauty, moments of knowledge. Art is life. Without art, life would be frozen. 14

Ojeikere’s series of photographs has since become a significant anthropological, ethnographic and documentary national treasure.

In contrast, Stephens chooses not to preserve traditional hairstyles but records the evolving culture associated with these hairstyles by capturing the sense of modernity and dynamism of urban style in Africa.

Many cultural studies theorists define modernity as the spread of global capitalism especially as modernity is largely perceived to be the engine that drove colonialism. Historian Sidney Kasir asserts:

In traditional African society, modernity itself only began to be a possible cultural choice in the postcolonial period, and has remained highly selective and fragmentary, and therefore the most striking similarity between the postcolonial and the postmodern is the condition of hybridity.15

Ghanaian scholar, Kwame Anthony Appiah also argues that much of African popular culture is uncritical of the seemingly limitless appetite for imported media and genres. 16

Stephens’ drawings are centrally premised on this condition. Through works like Braids, Earrings and Sunglasses, The Moonlight Scarf and Shiny Braid Bun, he raises questions of hybridity and identity as his subjects adorn sunglasses, modern earrings and decorative ornaments in their hair. Of particular reference are his drawings Zig Zag Braids and Neema, the titles accentuating these notions of modernity and underlining the artist’s interest in capturing the distinctively African sense of urban fashion. 17

He is also successful in his fusion of the comparatively more traditional media of drawing and printmaking with meticulously crafted string systems. This dedication and striking attention to detail is clearly evident in his drawings. Combining long, vertical, repetitive folds and pleats in the paper with string systems, Stephens emphasizes the three-dimensional quality of the weave patterns and voids in the plaited hair. These changing optical illusions are heightened when the drawings are viewed at several angles while moving across the picture plane. Here, the focus is slightly different. The system of strings and vertical pleats are a metaphor for the influence of modernity and the spread of global capitalism on post colonial Nigeria.

The works are strongly individual, their juxtapositioning lending a sense of urgency to an immediate purpose – to challenge the various stereotypes thrust on the African while addressing issues of personal identity, self discovery and history.

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