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Natural. Curly. Straight. Processed. Silkener. Dreads. Good hair. Nappy hair. Wigs. Today we’re exploring the world of hair, a billion-dollar industry.
For all its complexities, hair is an integral element in the New York-based artist Tasha Dougé’s work “This Land is OUR Land.” We spoke with her about the piece, and the intersection between history, art, hair, and identity. (The conversation with our visual editor, Sandra Stevenson, has been lightly edited and condensed.)
What inspired you to create “This Land”?
The inspiration came from the phrase “Make America Great Again.” O.K., so we’re going to make America great… When was it great? Who made it great? Who was it great for? When you answer these questions, you’ll have a slew of answers. When I think about this nation as a whole, it wouldn’t be what it is now without the contributions of enslaved Africans. I wanted to explore how I could convey the story of slaves in a way that hasn’t been done before. Without much thought, the image of the American flag came to mind. And then I thought: “Oh, I’m going to make the American flag with black hair.” And then I wanted to replace the stars with cotton.
Describe the creative process.
The hair I used was synthetic braiding hair in different shades (black, dark brown, brown, gray) that I purchased online. There were times that I was exhausted, because I work 9 to 5. She was definitely a task as she is 5 feet by 3 feet. I thought to myself that I could have walked away at any given point because no one knows she is in existence, but “no” kept resounding in my head, because my ancestors didn’t give up. And their pain was nowhere near my pain. So if I’m going to pay homage to my ancestors, I need to do right by them and complete this task. I reference her, Justice, as my blessed burden to carry. When you’re speaking truth that people don’t want to hear, that can be burdensome.
I used a braiding technique of elongating the braid without creating a new braid. It was a technique that I had watched for years of getting my own hair braided in African hair shops. Once I was done with all the strands, some 15 feet long, I then stitched them to chicken wire.
The final touch was sewing on the balls of cotton instead of stars. I wanted every element of that flag to have some type of representation: The brown stripes speak to the varying spectrum of color we are (light-skinned slaves were in the house and darker slaves were in the field); and we are all interwoven in that trauma of skin tone; the gray represents the years of oppression and it’s ongoing; the black box represents the black experience exclusive to this country. There is something very unique about the experience of black people in America. Cotton is really what spearheaded slavery in the first place.
What is the takeaway?
I want people to recognize and acknowledge the unquestionable contributions of my — better yet — our ancestors to this country. I want people to delve into the trauma of being unrepresented, ignored and invisible. I want people to feel pride, shame, loss, gratitude, remorse, respect and everything else there is to feel. I want people to see the resilient nature of the ancestors and their descendants because we are still slaves, just in a different rite. I want people to see the amount of labor and the level of commitment that is needed when striving for justice. And there are so many more layers to explore because she speaks to many facets of our existence and exploitation.
What does hair mean in the African-American community, and how do you think other communities view our hair?
My answer for this one is far too long to condense the layers into a few sentences. I can say this for now: after people kept asking me why I chose hair, it made me realize how black people propel the hair industry. Either we subscribe to the European aesthetic and spend all our money there, or we try to buy African hair and products from shops in our communities, but owned by people outside of our race. Either way, the money never funnels back into the black community. There is also the issue of cultural misappropriation. One word…Kardashians.
Last of the Wigmakers
Last year I met a wigmaker at a wedding. As we nibbled on crudité after the ceremony, Merria Dearman told me about her profession.
Her stories were instantly captivating. Did you know, she asked, that it takes at least four or five heads of human hair to make a single wig? The original bundles dwindle when you remove the short and broken hairs, she said, and wigs have to be thick enough to conceal the little knots at the roots.
And did you know, she asked, that those knots are made by hand?
Or that ramshackle hair factories have sprouted up all over Southeast Asia, all powered by the demand for extensions, weaves and wigs? Ms. Dearman, who’s 40, told me she once rented a motorcycle in Indonesia to see where some of the hair came from: The wigmaking version of “Eat, Pray, Love.” We laughed.
About a month ago, I called Ms. Dearman, who creates custom wigs mainly for cancer and alopecia patients from her New York studio. She discouraged me from writing about her. She said that instead, I should go find the old guys, legendary wigmakers for the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lena Horne. They were part of a tradition of custom wigmaking in New York that traced its roots to Europe.
In a garage on Staten Island, I marveled at 600 pounds of hair collected by one of these wigmakers, and learned a surprising story about the Cold War. Hint: After it was over, Russian hair flooded the market.
In Brooklyn, I had my hair examined by a wigmaker who survived the Holocaust.
She told me I have a right part, which is rare; nine in 10 people have left parts. And she blended hair to match my shade (“a very strange ash brown”) from three other shades of human hair using a spiked instrument called a hackle.
In a wig studio in a Midtown Manhattan office building, I saw the headforms of the cast of “Hamilton,” and dozens of other musicals, complete with squiggly hairlines, drawn in Sharpie.
And in Harlem, I learned about the incredibly protean world of black hair and how the women taking charge of it may represent the future of custom wigmaking — an intricate, and otherwise possibly dying art. — Annie Correal
[READ AND WATCH A VIDEO: “The Last of New York’s Master Wigmakers”]
Did You Know?
Here are some other interesting facts, myths and legends, many of them from Emma Tarlo’s exhaustive look at the global trade in human hair, “Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair.”
—Hair labeled Brazilian and Malaysian comes from Brazil and Malaysia. False. It usually comes from China and India and is chemically processed mainly in Chinese factories.
—The hair on the wax figures at Madame Tussauds comes from dead bodies. False. This is an urban legend. A spokeswoman assured me it came from living — at the time, at least — donors.
—Only bald men wear wigs and toupees. False. During the wig craze of the late 1960s and early 1970s, G.I.s reporting for weekend duty wore short hair wigs to hide long hair.
—Human hair is inedible. False. Short hair clippings, like those from men’s heads, are boiled down into L-cysteine amino acids, which have been used in food like pizza dough and bagels and add elasticity. (Using it in food is now banned in most places, though it is still used in face creams.)
—No one would want horsehair. False. There was a rash of horsetail and mane thefts in the U.S. not long ago. It was believed they were sold as extensions for show horses. The most valuable horsehair on the market is white.
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Join us on Facebook at 9 p.m. Eastern on Wednesdays. In our latest live chat, Fahima Haque, a social strategy editor at The Times, joined our reporter John Eligon to continue the discussion on racial terms that make us cringe. [WATCH]
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Around the Web
Here are some of the stories that we’re talking about, beyond The Times.
The Whitewashing of Natural Hair Care Lines [Read]
Moving Target: Is “Homeland” Still Racist? [Read]
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In The Times
The Times publishes many stories that touch on race. Here are a few you shouldn’t miss, chosen by Race/Related editors.
Visa Applications Pour In by Truckload Before Door Slams Shut [Read]
Tribes That Live Off Coal Hold Tight to Trump’s Promises [Read]
Changes in Policing Take Hold in One of the Nation’s Most Dangerous Cities [Read]
Battling to Save James Baldwin’s Home in the South of France [Read]
Quadruplets Offer Colleges Package Deal. Harvard and Yale Buy It. [Read]
The Lasting Power of Emmett Till’s Image [Read]
Black and Proud. Even if Strangers Can’t Tell. [Read]