Long before Chris Rock wondered what was up with black women’s hair (“Good Hair” 2009), black women in Africa were busy engaging in acts of self-fashioning that married their political sensibilities and their aesthetic leanings in ways that defied limitations of imagination and gravity. And photographer J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere was there to document that passing moment, showing us that hair was always political – reflecting not only one’s personal aesthetic position within global currents, but those of one’s nation, as well.
In the first of the BBC World Service’s new Youtube series (where they film radio interviews), Bisi Silva from the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos explains that one hairstyle – much like today’s styles associated with celebrity (like the “Farah Fawcett”, or the “Rachel”) – was even given a name: “Onile Gogoro” – Yoruba for “tall house” or “standing tall”. But this was not a style associated with any ordinary human celebrity; it was the embodiment of aspirations and euphoria of a nation at independence. Variations of these hairstyles were all over – I remember them in Zambia as late as the ’80s, before the “wet look” (known as the Jheri Curl in the US – BTW, the creator of that look, Comer Cottrell, just died this year) and hair straighteners took over.
Back in the ’60s, photographers were busy documenting the men of Africa, the patriarchs in their horn-rimmed spectacles, contending with the men of Europe, who wanted to maintain their control.
But Ojeikere documented how the ordinary person felt – how women in Nigerian urban scenes responded to independence, unleashing their poetic aspirations through style – their hair, clothing, walk, and body language. This hair stood tall on a solid structure, allowing one to reach higher than one’s physical limitations permitted. It captured the swirl in a wave that would otherwise only last a few moments in the ocean.
What a lovely imaginative leap, to go from thinking lofty thoughts about what independence offered us, to thinking…how shall I fashion myself – my living, physical body – to reflect my political desires, the euphoria that my fellow citizens feel?
When I see Ojeikere’s photographs today, I think of the same narratives I hear about New York’s first skyscrapers, built at the turn of the twentieth century: of the mythologies surrounding the Flatiron Building (1902) and the Chrysler Center (1930). Each of these grand buildings was imagined at a seminal historical moment of great hope and impossible-possibility. Into their construction went the desire to both show off and contain virility. So too, this hair.
Today, when one walks the avenues of Manhattan, one can easily pass by those powerful dreams that produced iconic buildings. We could easily forget those potent episodes in our histories. Ojeikere’s photographs remind us of such a wild moment – a moment that produced quintessentially Nigerian personifications of “freedom”, “modernity”, and sexual, creative, and generative power.
Photo Credits: J.D. Okhai Ojeikere & CCA Lagos