Wearing an afro may appear as dated as bell-bottom pants and shag carpets, but a new exhibit the Fort Wayne Museum of Art gets to the root of why natural hair should be considered a modern work of art.
The museum will be the first to display images from the coffee table book Afros: A Celebration of Natural Hair in a gallery setting. Brooklyn photographer Michael July recently raised more than $20,000 to publish his 450-page book that chronicles the evolution of the afro in America.
The images trace the history from the iconic afros of activist Angela Davis and musician Jimi Hendrix to the modern-day coifs of people of all ages and ethnicities. The exhibit will be open until June 9.
Museum Executive Director Charles Shepard says he found out about the book while browsing fundraising website Kickstarter.com. July’s thesis said there was a revival of natural hair happening in America.
His short paragraph was such a teaser. I pursued him, and found out more about him as he and I emailed back and forth, Shepard says. I told him it’s a marvelous book, but let’s turn it into an exhibit.
Shepard says he explained to July that his photographs had even more potential than what July knew.
I caught him off guard, Shepard says. I said, Michael, I hope your book is very successful, but another facet of your life is as an artist.’
Shepard says this is the museum’s first campaign to make an exhibit a touring gallery for other museums. He says the Afros exhibit is the first of six the museum plans to put on the road this year.
This is a big push for us. We typically have exhibits come here, we don’t particularly start shows to go places, Shepard says. We want people to realize that we may not be the biggest museum in the world, but we’re robust.
July’s 240 subjects span generations, featuring recognizable individuals such as writer Touré and modern-day philosopher Cornel West. July asked each of his subjects why they decided to wear their hair natural and what it means to them.
I like that Michael used people from life all around us. As subjects, they are just fabulous, whether they did something phenomenal or not, Shepard says. It’s a slice of society, and art should capture (the) spirit of the time.
Although, Shepard knew the images would have a visual impact, he says it was a focus group with blacks and Hispanics about the museum’s upcoming events that helped him understand the social stakes in a person deciding to wear their hair natural. During the civil rights movement of the ’60s and ’70s, the afro became a symbol of blacks embracing their heritage and protesting against the social acceptability of straightened hair.
Shepard says that through the discussion, he learned natural hair continues to be symbolic of freedom and authenticity. It also represents a more environment-conscious decision to avoid products to chemically straighten hair.
I was kind of behind the eight ball at the meeting, but I got my education. It’s bigger than style, Shepard says.
Along with the gallery, the museum will host A Day of Natural Hair program May 4. The day will feature hair demonstrations, workshops and natural hair vendors before a discussion with Michael July and Aevin Dugas, who has the Guinness World Record for the largest afro since 2011. Dugas, a New Orleans native, has an afro with a circumference of 4 feet 4 inches.
Other May events include an open mic night for poetry and essays regarding hair and a showing of comedian Chris Rock’s film Good Hair, which is a documentary that humorously explores the importance of hair to black women.
Shepard says he tends to like art that tackles social issues and styles that may be overlooked by other museums. He says that in the art world, he finds it surprising that the centuries-old debate on what should be considered art continues.
A lot of museums can be kind of snobby about art. We have a really open mind, he says.