It’s been described as a natural gift, a crown, a cross-cultural symbol and an art form. It connotes freedom of expression, confidence and acceptance. It can be a political statement or a way of life.
This summer, Seattle’s Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) is hosting “Afros: A Celebration of Natural Hair,” an exhibition of photographs of Afro-adorned subjects by Brooklyn-based photographer Michael July.
The images, part of a traveling exhibition instigated by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art in Indiana and based on July’s book of the same name, depict people of diverse races and ages from all over the United States and the world who sport the dynamic ’do. Some were snapped on the street; others were posed in the studio. None were photoshopped, keeping with July’s dedication to staying natural.
“It’s a healthier way of wearing your hair,” said July, who currently wears his hair in dreadlocks but had an Afro as a child. “It’s a way of respecting your body, your hair, and your spirit.”
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July, a photographer, DJ and cultural documentarian, began photographing Afro hairstyles in 2006, and the resulting coffee-table book, complete with hundreds of photographs and statements from their subjects about what their hair means to them, was published in 2013.
The Afro is often associated with the Black Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s, when refusing to assimilate to mainstream culture by straightening or perming one’s hair was an act of rebellion. However, while July aimed to pay his respects to the Afro’s history, his main purpose was “to capture the ‘Afro Renaissance’ across the country that was starting to happen” in the last decade. Wearing an Afro no longer necessitates politics, but remains a symbol of freedom, creativity and power.
“It is acceptable to wear your hair natural and you don’t have to be making any sort of statement, you don’t have to have a reason why except for ‘this is what I want to do,’ ” said Chieko Phillips, exhibitions manager at NAAM and curator of the exhibit. “And for people of color to be able to say, ‘this is what I want to do and I’m going to do it and I don’t have to explain to you why,’ I think that’s actually a very strong statement.”
NAAM is celebrating the exhibition’s recent opening with an Afropunk Bash on Saturday (June 28). The event, with two DJs and an “AfroTastic Catwalk” featuring stylists from Good Hair Salon and local models, aims to help the community engage with the exhibit in a more personal way. Phillips has also started a photo wall of locals’ Afros, and invites community members to post photos of their ’fros on Instagram (@naamnw).
Despite the exhibition’s cultural roots, it remains an aesthetic look at the Afro, emphasizing the style’s versatility, flair and cross-cultural appeal. The photographs represent artists, publicists, designers, students and activists from New York to Los Angeles to Japan. Some ’fros have picks; others are adorned with bows. All have an energy that transcends the frame of the photograph.
Phillips let the theme of “natural” dictate the exhibition’s design and installation. The photographs are hung on the mustard-orange walls in the salon style, allowing the eye to freely float from portrait to portrait.
One particularly striking image is of Shamika Benn, whose ’fro-framed face is joyful and serene. With one arm holding her bare shoulder, she gazes above the viewer’s head with a look that perfectly captures the exhibition’s celebratory nature. Some subjects evoke the same vivacity and happiness as Benn; others are more serious, but regardless of the individual, their Afros are given the space to speak for themselves.
Katharine Schwab: firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @kschwabable.