African Hair As Art: Identity and Hair jewels


Photograph by Sergio Guerra. 2002.

As part of our anthropology of jewelry posts, I will continue to use my actual degree every once and a while! Lately the questions concerning African hair styles today and identity has come up more and more on instagram.  Actually, it is the control of those styles in Africa and the New World, which is the topic of interest, not just beauty standards.  People are exploring their roots, identity, and asking questions concerning why natural African hairstyles have been censored in both the U.S. and on the African continent through history. As a doctor with experience in visual anthropology and the colonization of indigenous people using stereotypes and visual control, I see clear parallels.  In Africa, the many specific individual cultures often identified themselves and their tribal membership through hair styles. If one wanted to colonizes those groups, the first thing was often an attack on physical cultural traits, then language and so on.

I wanted to explore the beauty and symbolism behind hairstyles in Africa and how they were brought to the new world, using a text from Brazil called Cabelos de Axe. Identity and Resistance, by Raul Lody. In Brazil, they have some of the most detailed records and drawings made by European explorers of the cultures they encountered, still archived. One example is indeed hair and scarification practices on the slaves brought to Brazil. The drawings preserved, are a record of their practices.  Why is this important? Today, when I see young black people discussing the pressure to “tame” their hair or fit certain standards, I see that the real issues of can become clouded in discussions of beauty.

Hair was about not only identifying your group membership, it referred to age, gender, status, specific familial traits, and changed depending on important group events or rituals. Hair styles were shaved in different variations, wrapped, shells added or not added, braided, animal and natural materials were used to adorn it. Understanding material culture can become power in today’s climate, as many different groups in a global world negotiate their identities and learn to live with each other in productive ways. As Raul Lody points out in his text, “Africa” consists of 434 languages and dialects and 5 larger regions. Thus, highlighting the diversity found in attire and hair.  He continues to go into the history of slavery in Brazil, and its relationship to sugar cane and coffee. This is a very interesting and detailed history, but in order to explore more of these rare images I’ve focused on them.  I will credit the explorer or artist in each section, although many images are from this text.

French and European painters like Debret and Rugendas saw Brazil through the lens of their own cultures. There was a certain exoticism, romanticism, savage versus the colonial context to their purpose for documenting the populations of the country. That said, they did record some very interesting cultural traits, as the slaves fought to maintain their identity. I ran across these images of African people in the new world, during my doctoral studies, while researching imagery associated with mixed indigenous and indigenous Brazilian subjects. While I focused on stereotypes and visual anthropology, the details concerning the material culture they recorded has remained in my mind. Here is a round up of what I deem relevant images in this regard from Jean Baptiste Debret, Rugendas, and a few others from this period.



Rugendas drawings, found in Lody’s text.


Jean Baptiste Debret:

Debret drawings featured in Lody’s text.

Jean Baptiste Debret lithograph.

Debret drawings featured in Lody’s text.

African Photographs from Raul Lody’s text:


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