New Savannah African Art Museum exhibit sheds light on various roles of hair

click to enlarge A display of intricately braided hair on view in the Savannah African Art Museum's new 'ROOTS' exhibit, honoring diverse hair cultures in varied African societies. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SAVANNAH AFRICAN ART MUSEUM
Photo courtesy of Savannah African Art Museum
A display of intricately braided hair on view in the Savannah African Art Museum's new 'ROOTS' exhibit, honoring diverse hair cultures in varied African societies.
Hair is more than just a physical indicator of beauty, and a new Savannah African Art Museum exhibition sheds light on what hair means in various African cultures.

The new exhibition, ROOTS: Hair-Culture-History, Exploring the Hair & Cultures of West & Central Africa, will be on display until the end of January 2022, giving Savannahians plenty of time to discover how hair is engaged within different cultures. The exhibit aims to honor and explore the hair, culture, and history of West and Central Africa.

“Hair is a frequent topic of conversation amongst all women,” said Lisa Jackson, the SAAM education coordinator. “But, when it comes to hair of women of African descent, conversations have been laced with controversy, be it about European-based society’s views about hair beauty, or about the diverse hair choices Black women are rockin’ today.”

To shed light on the functionalities of hair across cultures, the exhibition is broken down into four main categories to include status, gender, initiation, and tools.

“What style you’re wearing can determine marital status, societal status, and the people that do your hair have to be sacred to you as well,” Assistant Curator Devon Vander Voort said. “We curated this exhibition because the significance of hair and how it’s changed over the centuries doesn’t get talked about enough.”

click to enlarge The Akam leader mask. - PHOTO BY BRANDY SIMPKINS
Photo by Brandy Simpkins
The Akam leader mask.
Ample sculptures and pictures line the walls of the exhibit room displaying different hairstyles on varied figures, all signifying their own importance.

“This is a Dan figure from Liberia, and she actually depicts one of a chieftain’s or a high member of society’s favorite wife,” said Billie Stultz, executive director and exhibition curator.

“We see her hair has beautiful braided plats facing towards the front, and they are very ornately braided, showing her high status as a high woman in society. It shows her education level as well as that she is a married woman.”

Stultz then compares the Dan figure’s forward-facing plats to similar braids on a Himba girl of Namibia.

“In the Himba culture, that’s young girls’ hairstyles until they get their menstrual cycle, and that’s when they are initiated into getting these Otjize locs. So, if you look up Himba women, they will have these beautiful Otjize locs with big puffs of hair at the end, and that’s an act of nourishing and caring for the hair.”

The curators expressed that hairstyling and its significance is not exclusive to women, so the ROOTS exhibit also sheds light on men and their hairstyles throughout various African cultures, including in the present day.

“In modern-day West Africa, women focus more on traditional African hairstyles, where men actually look to the Americas for their inspiration on hair. So, this is a barbershop sign in Ghana,” Stultz said as she pointed toward a sign painted with American celebrities. “They have hairstyles styled after Tupac, Will Smith, and Obama – so, very clean and very short.”

The significance of initiation was revealed through a mask that was caked with various hair types and textures.

“Here we have an Akam leader mask, and this mask is unique because it has real hair on it,” Vander Voort said. “This mask would have been given to people with high societal status.”

Stultz added, “The hair is also used as a way of holding that ancestry, so when a leader passes away their hair is put on this mask and it brings their life into the object, and this would be celebrated as a remembrance of the ancestor or the former leader that passed.”

click to enlarge Billie Stultz, left, and Devon Vander Voort at the exhibit. - PHOTO BY BRANDY SIMPKINS
Photo by Brandy Simpkins
Billie Stultz, left, and Devon Vander Voort at the exhibit.
The SAAM curators have also incorporated some interaction components for those who want to look and touch as they visit the exhibit. Stultz said that they made a board that was put together with different types of yarn so people can come and practice braiding, allowing them to explore and have fun with hair.

Also, the museum encourages individuals to participate in the exhibition virtually by using the hashtag “#SAAMHairstory” to share their own hair journeys for others to see. With the submissions, they will create an online exhibit for viewing and honoring the hair types and journeys of all participants.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, groups will be limited to five persons per tour to maintain social-distancing guidelines, and face masks are required. Tours are offered Wednesday through Saturday during 1-5 p.m., with the last tour beginning at 4 p.m., and workshops will be presented online. cs

The Savannah African Art Museum (201 E. 37th St., Savannah) is a nonprofit institution devoted to spreading awareness and appreciation of African art and culture. Visit savannahafricanartmuseum.org for details.

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