‘What I find really inter-esting about afro hair is the texture, shape and colour,” says artist Selina Thompson whose installation and performance piece Dark and Lovely opens at East Street Arts’ Union 105 gallery in Chapeltown next week.
“It is one of the most distinctive things about being black and I wanted to explore what that told us about being black.”
Originally from Birmingham, Thompson completed a degree in English and Theatre at the University of Sheffield and for the past two years has been living in Beeston in Leeds.
“I have always wanted to do something with East Street Arts,” she says. “And it was important to me that the project fit geographically within Chapeltown.
“For me what I associate Chapeltown with is hair – on the Chapeltown Road there are four of five black hair products shops and hairdressers – so since August last year I have camped out in hairdressers and barbers shops, making tea, learning how to weave hair and relax hair and just talking to people.”
Thompson also tapped into her own personal experiences speaking to family and friends about their hair stories – and she made some interesting discoveries.
“It was quite an emotional thing,” she says. “I really underestimated – and found out through this project – just how much time my mum spent on my hair and the braiding process.
“It would take her four hours to take the braids out, then the next day she would have to plait it back up. I had eight hours of undivided attention from my mum.” She heard similar stories from others she spoke to in Leeds.
“One girl told me how three of her cousins would come round to put her braids in and I heard another story from a young boy in Chapeltown who has a huge afro and he goes round to his grandmother, who does his hair for him, every day. These are really beautiful stories – that undivided time with the family and the passing down of knowledge.”
Dark and Lovely features an installation in which a giant hair ball or ‘tumble weave’, made from weaves and extensions, hides a barber’s chair in the centre of the gallery.
Visitors are encouraged to touch the structure and feel the various hidden textures, while on the walls of the room are objects and mementoes from Thompson’s family home.
Thompson will also give daily performances, lasting around 40 minutes, using recorded conversations, music, written text and the hair ball itself in which she explores the social and cultural debate surrounding afro hair and how it contributes to our understanding of black identity. “I think it is really important to look at beauty standards and the politics of identity and race,” she says. “An afro in the 60s and 70s was a political statement – there was this idea that black hair looked messy, wasn’t respectable and it couldn’t work in certain jobs.
“I want to look at how we can we change that and reimagine all of those connotations.”
During the course of the performance, the hair ball – which Thompson describes as “something a bit gross” is transformed into a thing of beauty.
“Flowers grow out of the hair and fruit comes out of it. I give people the opportunity to explore the hair ball, touch it – afro hair has a gorgeous texture – and take photos,” she explains.
“With this piece, because it is so loaded and complicated, I think it is important to make a strong visual image so that people can project what they want onto it. There are bits of the performance which are very much me and bits where I am being a conduit for someone else’s story. People can take from it what they want.”
Dark and Lovely, February 15-22, Union 105 gallery, Chapeltown Road, Leeds 0113 262 6633. Performances at 6.30pm (plus 2.30pm on Saturday February 15).
The installation is open daily from 12noon-6pm. www.eaststreetarts.org.uk