Hair is not an unlikely creative medium. After all, we style our hair into cascading spirals, intricate braids and sleek, bone straight tresses at will. We wear afros like halos, cornrows as crowns, locs like ropes that hold the history of our past, present and future. Yes, we have always used hair as an artistic expression, designing our kinky, coily, curly or straight strands into masterpieces.
When it comes to using hair as an art form, it actually has been used longer and is more popular than you thought. Take for instance, Japanese artist Nagi Noda’s animalistic hair hats that nonchalantly sit atop her models’ heads. There’s Rosemary Meza, who uses her hair to compose unsettling line drawings that examine body and gender. And, of course, Nakeya B’s Hair Stories Untold and The Refutation of “Good” Hair series: the former specifically highlights the mysterious and magical world of black hair rituals, evoking a nostalgia and recognition for black women and girls who lay eyes on thee images, while the latter questions what “good” hair actually means, by showcasing models eating hair—is good hair supposed to taste good? Be nutritiously good for you? Or just look good—appetizing?
These follicle fairytales, especially from women of color, illustrate our complicated social, cultural and personal relationships with hair. By using it as a material or subject of art, these women reclaim a part of our bodies that, for too long, has determined our femininity, beauty, value and self esteem.
Yet, there’s something playful and humorous about Ivorian artist Laetitia Ky’s hair sculptures, shaped from her long, pencil-thin locs. They take the form of anything from bunny ears to glasses. They can be a second set of hands that complete a finger-studded heart, or help emphasize an expression of excitement or attitude. They can be a tree erupting from her head with a small bed of flowers surrounding it—taking the idea of natural hair and returning to one’s roots, literally. They can transform into an ecstatic black girl dancing on her scalp. They are the world. They are the continent, Africa. They are full of life.
Ky’s hair feels like her best friend: an extended part of herself that finishes her sentences, grows with her and assists any creative project she imagines. Considering black women’s personal journeys with our hair, it’s safe to say that our hair is one of our dearest, oldest friends. They have a personality all their own, they beg us for caretaking and forgiveness, and learn to take our lead once we submit to their’s. Ky’s hair sculptures are a whimsical interpretation of these notions: a union of an imaginary friend and an expandable body part.
In the conversation below, we talked to Laetitia Ky about her hair herstory, Afrofuturism and unleashing her inner goddess.
This interview was conducted in French and translated by Jackie Traoré.
OkayAfrica: Your Instagram says you’re an “Ivorian Goddess.” I love that title! Self identification is so important to our generation. Can you tell us more about what being an Ivorian Goddess means, and who you are?
Laetitia Ky: Goddesses are known for their beauty, their strength, courage, assurance, intelligence, and more generally to represent the best in women. I see myself in these qualities, so identifying myself as a goddess, just helps me show the confidence that I’ve garnered other the years, and to express myself artistically without shyness or restraint. No woman should be ashamed of their confidence, because without it there’s no success. I’m not speaking of arrogance but of assurance. Everything starts with confidence and I think all women should consider themselves goddesses. And well the Ivorian is because I’m Ivorian.
OKA: What’s your earliest hair memory? How did it impact you?
LK: I remember the times my mom braided my hair. I also remember the ladies who would walk with their comb and hair cream in hand who occasionally braided my hair. It was pure torture! They made the braids so tight!
OKA: Have you ever struggled with your personal relationship with your hair?
LK: Not really, I’d say that I had no relationship with my hair. I really didn’t care for my hair, and my hair regimen consisted of relaxers and braids. I liked to braid my hair, but I didn’t care for the hair below.
OKA: What does natural hair mean to you?
LK: Being natural is for me a sign of acceptance. Accepting the way nature created us and being proud to have been made that way.
OKA: How did you learn to do hair?
LK: My mom taught me when I was very young (4 or 5). I loved the way she used to braid and I wanted to learn how to do it. But I think it was a talent that was always within me, because according to her I learned in no time. I quickly mastered the art though I was only a baby!
OKA: What inspired you to create art with your hair? When did you start and why?
LK: I came across an Instagram album of hairstyles women used to wear in some African tribes prior to colonization. These hairstyles were really impressive and made me want to use hairstyling as a means of expression.
OKA: Your hair sculptures take a variety of forms—from flowers and hands to bunny ears. What’s the stories behind these shapes?
LK: It’s hard to explain, I can be inspired by everything and nothing. Ideas come to me in a flash, it’s a pretty intuitive process actually. When they come to me, I just think of ways to execute them.
OKA: What does Afrofuturism mean to you? Does it influence your work?
LK: To be honest I don’t know much about afrofuturism. I know that it’s an artistic movement that explores the future in a black context by mixing “fantasy” and “technology” as a way to escape from a painful oppressive past (colonization and its aftermath). I’m not really inspired by this movement. I’m more inspired by afro traditionalism which is its opposite since it is interested in Afro aesthetics of the past. Why? Because it’s a way for me to put a spotlight on the beauty of our original aesthetic, before it was compromised by Western culture.
These two movements seem opposed, but they have a lot in common. This is probably why you thought I was dabbling in Afrofuturism. Part of the Afrofuturist aesthetic seems to draw inspiration from Afrotraditionalism. Because when one tries to escape a painful past by projecting oneself into the future, one unconsciously draws from a distant and happy past, one before the suffering began.
OKA: What do you hope to accomplish with your hair stories?
LK: What I really want to express is my love for Africa: it’s the beauty of difference and uniqueness. I live in a beautiful country by extraordinary and creative people. Unfortunately, these individuals stay in the shadow and do not express themselves for fear of being judged. I find this unfortunate. I want to show that celebrating one’s uniqueness shouldn’t be viewed negatively and one should always strive to express oneself.
OKA: Can you tell us more about Kybraids? How did you create this concept?
LK: KYbraids are braids made by covering the hair with Wax print (a fabric that is very popular here). In addition to regular braids, they can be transformed into bantu knots, and many different styles. Like most of my ideas, the idea came to me in a flash as I was looking at an African mask adorned with wax in a magazine. It’s a fabric that we often use in fashion here and for home decor. So I thought to myself, why not hair?
OKA: What are your favorite materials to use in your hair? What do they mean to you?
LK: I don’t use much! Just thread, scrunchies, pins, wool, hair extensions, wire. Different materials depending on what I want to achieve.
OKA: What is the one thing you would say to your younger self about your hair journey?
LK: To be honest if I had the opportunity to go back in time to give advice to little Laetitia about her hair, I probably wouldn’t. I didn’t always have the best way to care for my hair, but it’s because of this experience that I’m on the journey I’m on today. I don’t think one should always seek to right their mistakes, because that’s the way we learn and grow.