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Hair as History, Sound as Sight 

This came as a surprise. Although I've always found extreme hairstyles interesting, regardless of race, I assumed it was one of those fundamentally populist topics that would never make it into major art galleries or museums. An art show based on African-American hair seemed especially unlikely because, unlike black fashions and music (especially the hip-hop variety), which have made major inroads on mainstream American pop culture, the more esoteric African-American hairdos have defied crossover status.

Sure Bo Derek had cornrows, but the more extreme Caucasian hair styles, for instance the vintage Balboas, Prince Valiants and Mohawks worn by guys, and the teased and lacquered beehives worn by women in the 1960s, came and went seemingly on their own, from out of the blue. Now Hairstories gives us an artist's eye view of black hair as a pop phenomenon -- and more. Kerry James Marshall's De Style is a realistic painting of a black barbershop with a dude decked out in a suit and two-tone shoes, skinny tie and French-cuff shirt, all topped off with a modified Balboa haircut so extreme that Little Richard might turn green with envy. Even wilder hair tsunamis appear in Kehinde Wiley's Conspicuous Fraud Series #2 , in which young black guys in hip-hop fashions stare blankly as their hair towers over their heads like nappy mushroom clouds -- up, up and away, over the top of the canvas. Here the artist exaggerates to heighten the contrast with mainstream (white) America.

In African-American culture during the civil-rights era, hair as a sign of rebellion often took the form of the afro, which appears here on Angela Davis on an old Jet magazine cover, as well as on Kathleen Cleaver in Gordon Parks' portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Eldridge Cleaver in exile in Algiers. But a later photo taken in Jamaica reveals Bob Marley's long dreadlocks flying to the beat of 'rebel' reggae music.

Highly stylized hair also exists as a statement of personal or group identity, as we see in Bill Gaskins' photo, Tamara and Tireka, Baltimore , in which two young black women display their elaborately waved and spit-curled afro-baroque coifs. Even so, hair is always about more than just hair. A section titled Good and Bad Hair explores its underlying sociology through black Barbie dolls, old photographs and a variety of graphics and text panels pertaining to the old and deeply internalized prejudice that favored straight or wavy hair, while nappy or tightly coiled hair was considered problematic. Processed hair, originally a remedy for nappy locks, eventually became a device for personal expression, as did hair extenders. In Cathleen Lewis's Extensions (Ethnic Signifiers) installation, synthetic hair is fashioned into an abstract maze the size of a small room, lending adornment an evocative extra dimension. Hairstories is a penetrating look at the cultural symbolism of African-American hair, which in this view sometimes seems to have a life and mind of its own. Now here's a riddle for you. We all know that blind people can become accomplished musicians, but how does a blind man get to be an accomplished photographer? Answer: with a little help from his friends. But maybe not as much as you might think. Blind piano legend Henry Butler has been a photographer for more than 20 years, and his portraits of Woody Allen, George Dureau and a variety of maskers from last Mardi Gras are crisp, clear and insightful. How does he do it? His print coordinator, Suzanne Gandalfo, says he zeroes in on his subjects' "aura" through sound and other senses. An assistant, Andrea Duplessis, sometimes helps, yet intuition always seems to have a lot to do with it. Blind since birth, the acclaimed jazz-funk-blues pianist has said he learned the art of heightened perception as a small child in church, where he "felt" the music: "I felt it through my body, my whole being." As a photographer he seems to sense his subjects through a related sort of psychic radar, proving in the process that an artist's "vision" involves much more than just visual observation.

click to enlarge Bill Gaskins' photograph, Tamara and Tireka, Baltimore, illustrates highly stylized hair as a statement of personal or group identity.
  • Bill Gaskins' photograph, Tamara and Tireka, Baltimore, illustrates highly stylized hair as a statement of personal or group identity.
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