A Case Of Art Imitating (Black) Life

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Anyone who has ever harbored a secret desire to touch a black person’s hair got a free pass today thanks to the performance art piece “You Can Touch My Hair.” The exhibit was presented in Union Square by Un’ruly, a website devoted to the black hair experience. I watched as three brave models with different hair types willingly subjected themselves to stares, questions and yes, petting from random strangers. Controversial? Yes. Brilliant? Absolutely.

I don’t care if she has a massive mane of curls, a ‘fro, locs or a weave, at some point in a black woman’s life, she will experience unwanted hair touching from a curious white person. It’s a maddening experience, and it even happens to celebrities on live TV. The team behind Un’ruly, editor-in-chief Antonia Opiah and her sister and publicist of the site, *Abigail Opiah, view the exhibit as a catalyst to help fix the root of the problem: the widespread lack of knowledge about black hair. The piece was inspired by “Can I Touch Your Hair?” a popular blog entry that Antonia wrote for The Huffington Post. Antonia, who lives in Paris, was not present at the exhibit, but Abigail was there to oversee the spectacle. “This display is an experiment to see if, given the opportunity, will people actually come up and touch our hair and ask questions. It’s something that always happens anyway, so why not? I’ve worked at an all-white PR agency and I went to an all-white school–I’ve always been a topic of discussion. People have said things to me like ‘Oh my god, you only wash your hair once a week? How do you do that?’” says Abigail.

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The models, from left to right: Malliha, Joliana and Jade

While I was there, I only saw two people that actually dared to put their hands in the models’ hair, but Abigail said that the show was attracting a diverse group of participants. “So far, it’s been an equal amount of black and white people touching. The black people come up and say, ‘Oh yes girl, I know!’ or ‘You look fabulous.’ There have been some men coming up, too. But the whole point of this is to get the dialogue going,” she says.

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This guy isn’t shy.

I could talk for hours about my own experiences with offensive hair touching. I remember being in the third grade when a rowdy boy in my class came up behind me and gripped the pigtails that stuck out from the side of my head. He pretended to twist them, as if they were motorcycle handlebars, and yelled “Vroom, vroom!” I was a super-shy little girl so it was even more mortifying to be mocked and laughed at in front of my classmates. Little did I know that was only the beginning. I became a pro at answering annoying questions about my hair-washing habits when I was in junior high and high school. And as a grown woman, I’ve dealt with varying levels of white-coworker inappropriateness sparked by the Afro that I had for seven years and the down-to-my-butt weave I wore one summer. And there was my brief stint with braids last year. Oh, the stories I could tell.

Although I’m sick of the never-ending politicization of black women’s hair, I’m all for the “You Can Touch My Hair” exhibit. The Un’ruly team has taken something offensive and turned it into a teaching moment. Love it or hate it, the show provokes strong reactions from a wide variety of people. Isn’t that exactly what great art is supposed to do?

“You Can Touch Me” will be on display in NYC’s Union Square on Saturday, June 8th from 2 – 4 pm. If it rains, the show will be rescheduled for the same time on Sunday, June 9th. 

Related: The “Can I Touch Your Hair?” Issue Makes Its Way Into Primetime TV

*Updated 6/11: A previous version of this post listed Abigail Opiah’s title as managing editor.
An Art Exhibit That’ll Get Under Your Skin

Last week at the opening of “Borderline: Depictions of Skin,” an exhibition at the Garis & Hahn gallery on the Lower East Side, I was asked to think more deeply about skin and its place in the world.

The exhibit features mixed media work by Gwen Hardie, Cynthia Lin and Diana Schmertz. Each of the three artists presents different perceptions of skin in an attempt to force the viewer to “confront their own relationship between their body and the world,” as the press release puts it. My favorite pieces on display made me feel a little bit uncomfortable–and that’s a good thing.

When I go to an art museum or gallery, the works that make a lasting impression are the ones that stir up some kind of emotion inside of me—heartache, amazement, confusion or disgust. Standing in front of a photograph, installation or what-have-you, if I don’t feel something, I move on. At Garis & Hahn, I lingered on several paintings of interlocked hands by NYC-based artist Diana Schmertz. Her figures made me think of touching, of skin on skin, and I felt sort of squirmy. It was as though I had gotten a peek of something private, something I wasn’t meant to see.

I had the pleasure of meeting Diana at the exhibit and she shared her thought process behind three of her pieces.

1. Something on the Other Side Of It: “With the works that have piles of hands, as opposed to the circular moments of contact, I am conveying ideas about interconnectedness and perception, as well as, ideas of linear versus non-linear time. I believe the idea of interconnectedness is easily assessable. We are social beings and what we do effects other people and the environment we are a part of. The idea that each interaction stays with us and effects the rest of our experiences is also evident in the pile images.”

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2. The Cause of Itself: “It addresses the idea in western philosophy that something cannot come from nothing. Everything is a reaction to an action. Hence, it is believed nothing can be the cause of itself.  This leads to the question ‘What was the first action?’ In this painting, the pile of hands has no beginning or end demonstrating a lack of knowledge or understanding of ‘the cause.’”

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3. Container of Time and Space: “These works are a mixture of ideas from my gridded works and the piles. I express the idea of interconnectedness by piling the moments of contact together and dissonance in the fact that each moment is mechanically separated into a geometric circle.”

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In my daily life as a beauty writer, I tend to think of skin as just an organ that needs moisturizer or a blank canvas for makeup, which is why I really enjoyed the concept of “Borderline: Perceptions of Skin.” The exhibit as a whole is a reminder that skin is so much more.

Photos courtesy of Diana Schmertz