Sunday, August 4, 2013

Good Hair

by Drew Martin
In an interview with Terry Gross a year ago, Chris Rock explains that Julie Delpy asked him to play opposite her in 2 Days in New York after she saw that he was a good father in Good Hair, his documentary about the socioeconomic state of African American hair. I wanted to see Good Hair when it came out in 2009 but never got around to it. I recently listened to Rock's archived interview, and his comment piqued my interest so I ordered it from Netflix (streaming not available). It is a fantastic film that takes you inside Hollywood hair salons, Harlem barbershops, and a hair product convention in Atlanta where rival stylists stage elaborate performances. The film even transports you to the temples in India where millions of people shave their heads for tonsure. The women's long, thick, black locks of hair are then washed, sewn into strands and brought to America by entrepreneurial Indian businessmen. The hair fetches them more than its weight in gold when sold to salons for multi-thousand dollar weaves.

The word tonsure actually originates from tonsura, Latin for clip, or cut. Catholic monks once shaved their heads as a symbol of their renunciation of worldly fashion and esteem. It is ironic that what is freely abandoned by women in one culture is so coveted by women elsewhere, even when the cost of a weave might financially ruin a family.

Rock is masterful in his simple tone. He does not shake his finger at anyone, the way Michael Moore does in his documentaries, which inspired this kind of low-budget, man-on-the-street production. Instead Rock diffuses the most controversial topics with his humor and makes a movie that somehow celebrates all aspects of the industry and culture. Reverend Al Sharpton Jr. chimes in on the situation and raises the issue of oppression. Rock could have taken a more critical approach but the barbershop talk reduces the issue to what women want.

Personally, I think it is insane to spend a lot of money on hair. I have gone to the same barbershop in Chinatown for more than a decade for a no frills $5 haircut, and I embrace the graying process as I age. What I like most about others' hair is when it expresses its natural possibilities.

When I studied art in college I took a Western art course but then satisfied the rest of my art history requirements with classes about African art. I loved all of it, particularly the traditional hairstyles. My favorite hairstyle was worn by the Mangbetu women who shaped their skulls and wove their hair into a frame. The skull manipulation is disturbing but twenty years ago as an art student I was amazed at how the Mangbetu and many other styles across Africa were so sculptural.

In centuries of Western art, hair was treated like fabric; its curls and waves were painted and carved with the same glossy detail as silk and velvet. More abstractly, Leonardo da Vinci compared the twist of hair to the movement of water. In contemporary art, I cannot think of a way hair has not been used but my favorite comment was made by an artist whose name now escapes me. He collected and used hair in his work. His remark was about how hair is a filter of our environment.

After writing this text above and posting the top three images this morning, I went to the Washington's Headquarters museum in Newburgh, NY. The museum consists of the Dutch house that served as Washington's longest stay headquarters during the revolutionary war, and a museum building. One of the curious objects on display in the museum building alongside muskets, and 18th and 19th century household objects was a Victorian mourning hair wreath. I had no idea these existed but they were quite common in middle- and upper-class homes in North America and northern Europe during the mid to late 1800s. The wreaths were made with hair of deceased relatives and wire, and also included beads, pearls, feathers and photographs. They were very ornate and often
 prominently displayed in homes to not only remember a late loved one but also to show off the handiwork of the matriarch. The lower left image here is a detail of such a wreath.