Bad hair day. Trite phrase, but it’s a cliché with resonance (aren’t they all?). Whether it’s perfectly coiffed or just-rolled-out-of-bed messy, outlandishly dyed or completely natural, shaved or knee-length tresses, good hair in any guise can make you feel strong, beautiful, confident. An expensive haircut is no guarantee of a good one; kitchen scissors to a mop can make you feel empowered. A haircut is arguably the only beauty treatment that men and children commonly partake in. Hair is, in that sense, the great equaliser.
In Cyndia Harvey’s latest project, hair takes on even greater, symbolic significance. Harvey, the London-based hairstylist whose portfolio includes magazines (including Naomi Campbell on the cover of the A/W16 issue of AnOther Magazine), campaigns (Kenzo x H&M, the Tyrone Lebon-shot Calvin Klein My Calvins campaign) and Frank Ocean’s Nikes video, has now turned her skills to a personal project: This Hair Of Mine. An Akinola Davies Jr-directed video, it debuted at the NATAAL curated space at AKAA (Also Known As Africa, a fair dedicated to contemporary African art) in Paris earlier this week.
Taking on Big-with-a-capital-B themes through an intimate, even domestic lens, This Hair Of Mine explores the African diaspora and asks questions about what beauty means, through the narrative of hair. The video features several young women from diverse African backgrounds and, following detailed research and conversations with the girls about themselves, Harvey gave them each a hairstyle that reflected their ethnic, tribal heritage – but hers was a thoroughly contemporary reimagining, rather than a literal take. The film sees the girls discuss their heritage and what their hair means to them: it’s a warm, personal exploration of a huge issue. Harvey credits the girls with helping to bring the vision to life. “They’re great girls,” she says. “Gorgeous, beautiful, funny, really intelligent women. It was almost like a big daytime slumber party – but really hard work.”
Harvey came up with the idea for This Hair Of Mine when, among other sadly similar incidents, news broke in August 2016 that a prestigious South African high school had banned ‘untidy’ afros. It was a shocking example of pernicious and institutionalised oppression. “Do you know how damaging this is, to to be told that what you are physically is not right? In 2016, young kids shouldn’t be dealing with this. It’s ludicrous, the extent of the ignorance. Absolutely shocking.” There’s nothing preachy about This Hair Of Mine, however, which makes its point through beauty rather than anger. A reflection of the ‘love trumps hate’ sentiment flooding cultural discourse at the moment, Harvey knows that a celebration of diversity is the best riposte to oppression.
“The project is really a celebration of black women and black beauty and black hair,” says Harvey. “Beauty is a broad spectrum and everyone is a part of it. Nobody can say ‘this one thing is what the standard of beauty must be’. No one can dictate that.” Harvey’s video encapsulates a new activist spirit that has stirred up in recent months. “I think in terms of everything that’s going on, people having to fight and even protest to wear their hair natural, everybody needs to advocate for the visibility of any marginalised group of people in any way that they can. This is the least of anything I can do to contribute to that. I guess I want people to walk away feeling good, feeling happy. If young black girls are watching this I want them to feel proud and happy about their hair, that it has so much heritage, so much history, and not be ashamed of it or told to be ashamed of it.”
Harvey’s earliest memories of getting her hair done were as a child growing up in Jamaica (where “the adventure is endless”). Ironically, she says she used to be afraid of getting her hair done. “Terrified! I had the biggest afro you could imagine and every Sunday my mum would summon me for the entire day; it was dedicated to doing my hair.” Four hours of braiding might have tested the patience of the young Harvey, but, she admits “I loved the bonding experience; everyone remembers sitting between their parents’ legs getting their hair canerowed or scalp greased.” Maybe it’s the tactility, maybe it’s the time spent in close proximity to someone, maybe it’s the trust you have to inevitably put in a hairstylist’s hands, but there is something undeniably social about having one’s hair done.
Moving to South London aged 11, Harvey would wait at her mother’s salon after school. She says she got into hairdressing via serendipitous tedium; it was something to do with her hands that she just happened to be good at. “I would be so bored I’d take part in whatever the class was, and I was really good at it,” she says. “I was obsessed with setting hair for some reason. I hold the unofficial record for the fastest time you can set someone’s hair in!” It was working as the legendary Sam McKnight’s first assistant that Harvey really honed her skills. The most valuable lesson she learnt from him was to treat people with respect – indeed, one of the girls in the video talks about feeling “regal” – and to make people feel comfortable in the chair.
That ease translates into Harvey’s work, which is authentic, and has a natural quality even when it is intricate. “I want an easiness to everything,” she says. “I always want the girl to ‘fit’ in the hair, I never want the girl to look out of place in the style, like someone has ‘done’ her hair, no matter how elaborate or technical it is. I want it to feel easy.” Indeed, that’s the triumph of This Hair Of Mine; no matter how sculptural the styles, each girl owns and inhabits her look naturally, proudly, and with complete freedom. And what could be more beautiful than that?
Creative director Cyndia Harvey; Casting director TM Casting; Styling PC Williams; Hair Cyndia Harvey; Make-up Nami Yoshida (@namiyyy)
Director and editor Akinola Davies Jr; Director of production Jack Wells; Production assistant Nellie Owusu; Colourist Jason Wallis @ ETC; “Wound” courtesy of Arca, Callum Harrison and Joseph Bond @joseph_bond
With special thanks to Nataal.