The Artist Turning Black Hair into “Galaxies, Solar Systems, Moonscapes”

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Earth & Sky #3, 2016By Lorna Simpson, From Lorna Simpson Collages, Chronicle Books 2018

A new book from Lorna Simpson transforms fragments from old issues of Ebony and Jet magazines into powerful ruminations on the nuanced symbolism of black hair

It is a point of beauty, pride, power, and politicisation, but black hair has also long been a target for racial bias and discrimination. On May 16, the United States supreme court refused to hear the case of Chastity Jones, an African-American woman whose job offer from Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS) in Alabama was rescinded when she refused to shear off her locs. CMS maintained that this traditional black hairstyle, which holds spiritual significance for some who wear it, was not in compliance with the company’s policy. 

The supreme court effectively denied Jones and others who wear locs protection under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlaws any form of discrimination based on race, religion, sex, or national origin. The court’s rebuff ensures that employers and schools can continue to deny black men and women access on the basis of their hair – be it worn in dreads, afros, or any design that is not “in compliance” with racially determined standards of appearance. 

While the court sidesteps responsibility to its citizens, African-American artist Lorna Simpson restores pride and power to the people. Born in 1960, Simpson came of age as the flames of the Black Power and Pan-African movements blazed bright, the images of “Black is Beautiful,” which embraced black hair and African features, became an integral part of her aesthetic sensibility. 

In her new book, Lorna Simpson Collages, Simpson offers poetic meditation on the splendour of black hair, constructing collages made from vintage issues of Ebony and Jet, pages from old textbooks, “Riunite & Ice” ads, and luscious colourful ink washes to create spellbinding coiffures. Here, black hair is beauty, fashion, and art – magical masterpieces that remind us of the power of representation to inspire, influence, and inform our understanding of ourselves and of the world. 

In the book’s introduction, poet, scholar, and author Elizabeth Alexander observes, “In Lorna Simpson’s collages ‘the black and the boisterous’ hair is the universal governing principle. Black women’s heads of hair are galaxies unto themselves, solar systems, moonscapes, volcanic interiors. The hair she paints has a mind of its own. It is sinuous and cloudy and fully alive. It is forest and ocean, its own emotional weather. Black women’s hair is epistemology, but we cannot always discern its codes.”

Perhaps this is because Simpson’s collages harbour ancient wisdom and knowledge. Consider the series Riunite & Ice, which uses the same image of a jewelled woman throughout. The repetition of the same picture-perfect face in different works recalls the image of Nefertiti, the black queen of Egypt who was part of a revolutionary regime. Since her tomb was discovered in 1912, she has become an icon of the majestic power of black womanhood, becoming the face that launched countless replicas, which pay homage to the power of black beauty to transcend space and time.

This sense of ethereal divinity is everywhere in Simpson’s work, be it the gemstones of malachite, haematite, and tourmaline or the cosmic wonders that appear in the enchanting series Earth & Sky. “Black women are all the books of the Ancient Library of Alexandria, Egypt,” Alexander writes. “Black woman are Hammurabi’s code and the Rosetta stone: vexation and answer, secret and revelation. Black women are surpassingly beautiful, and that is why you cannot stop looking at Lorna Simpson’s pictures.”

Lorna Simpson Collages, by Lorna Simpson, introduction by Elizabeth Alexander, is out June 5, 2018, published by Chronicle Books.