Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s an idiom we often hear as one way to define the concept of beauty. Wambui Kamiru Collymore calls into question both the concept of beauty and its practice by African women.
In her art installation, currently showing at One Off Contemporary Art Gallery entitled Akili ni Nywele–Series III, Wambui Kamiru Collymore calls into question the concept of beauty and its practice by African women. More precisely, she explores how African women and other women of colour are affected by society’s definitions of beauty and the broader theme of femininity.
For instance, who defines what constitutes black beauty and femininity? And where did these concepts come from in the first place?
These are concerns most women heading to the hair salon probably don’t give a second thought about. But Wambui wants black women to look more critically into something she calls the politics of femininity. For her, the stakes are high.
Free from dictates of society
“I want women to be free to choose how they look and not feel dictated to by society.”
Speaking to Life&Style shortly after her exhibition/installation opened on July 31st, Wambui recalls that she had started back in 2017 in a previous installation to raise the issue of Black femininity, who defines it, how, and why? Back then, this Oxford University African history master’s graduate explored how young girls are socialised from an early age to imbibe Western concepts of beauty, romantic love, and blond-haired, blue-eyed standards of femininity represented in the shape of second-hand Barbie dolls.
“Society as a whole defines what African women [and girls] are meant to do to be beautiful and feminine.”. To illustrate that point, one whole room in the gallery presents a similar representation of her 2017 show. As before (only on a much larger scale), she paints the room pure pink, which, of course, is the stereotypic colour symbol for femininity. It has a bookcase filled with romance novels and a whole shelf filled with mitumba white Barbie dolls. The room also has a matching pink vanity table complete with a mirror and pictures of pretty little white girls who invisibly plant foreign concepts of beauty in little black girls’ minds.
Wambui even created a carpet made out of natural and artificial wavey long hair, the type she says that wealthy Black women (since human hair is pricey) stitch or glue onto their African hair.
To illustrate how wearing human hair, either in the shape of a wig or glued-on extensions, Wambui had two professionals, one a makeup artist, Nzilani Kimani, the other a photographer, Emmanuel Jambo help her illustrate the extent to which women will go to meet Western standards of beauty.
But what makes us believe Wambui looks more beautiful wearing a human hair weave and perfect make-up?
Wambui takes over another One Off room, the Loft, to screen a seven-minute split-screen video to challenge the belief that artificial hair is somehow superior to natural African hair. One side of it reveals Wambui in a bathroom surgically cutting off her long artificial braids layer by layer. She’s symbolically silenced with a red tape across her mouth, removed only after all the synthetic hair is gone. The other side is set in the same bathroom, only now all we see are her feet and the sliced braids fallen to the floor. In sum, the video suggests that the braids, being alien, were also depriving her of her power to speak and think freely. To confirm that conclusion, Wambui returns in the video wearing a turban towel which she removes to reveal her natural hair and a freshly washed face that looks equally attractive but more authentic than the bewigged Wambui.
Hair plays such a major role in urban African women’s lives; they can frequently spend hours at the salon having their hair either braided, chemically straightened, or extended with human or artificial (plastic) hairpieces.
That reality led Wambui to curate one final room (the biggest one in One Off’s former table), which she fills with all the paraphernalia one can find in the best upmarket beauty salons. All painted a bright shiny silver; she includes one large table display of essential tools used by the best hairstylists, namely the hand-held hair dryers, brushes, curlers, combs and even hot combs. She even brought in three second-hand sit-down hairdryers to illustrate just how industrialised the African women’s hair industry is.
But if African hair has generated a huge hair industry, Wambui suggests there is also a politics of hair that black women need to understand.
There is nothing naturally beautiful about wigs and weaves, Wambui’s show seems to say. Women and girls have been socialised to believe that standards of beauty and femininity are the norm without realising they are actually colonial hangovers. Once they understand that, they can be free to choose how they want to look and define what is beautiful, both within and without themselves.
“I want my daughters to grow up making up their own minds how they want to look and be,” says Wambui, who quotes the Kiswahili proverb to summarise what her show means to her:
“Akili ni nywele, kila mtu ana zake (Intelligence is like hair, everyone has their own).”