Arts + Culture

The Root of the Issue: The Politics of Black Women's Hair

Discussing the politics and problematics of the "You Can Touch My Hair" exhibit, black women's hair and the natural hair movement

The internet has been up in arms about the 'You Can Touch My Hair' exhibit held at Union Square in NYC, which was organised by Antonia Opiah, founder of natural hair blog The two-day event involved several models holding up signs that read 'You Can Touch My Hair' (and, on the second day, women holding 'You Can't Touch My Hair' signs in protest). On June 7th, The Sanaa Circle, a group affiliated with the National Museum of African Art, presented a panel and discussion at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. The panel took on questions of health and beauty surrounding contemporary black women's hair. The issue was grounded in the heritage and history of Africa, with historians, medical professionals, models, and a curator presenting the discussion.

A group of us came together to discuss the politics of black women's hair in these two events, and the greater national and global conversations about othering blackness, femininity, and the perils of nonblack 'curiosity'.

ZEPHYR: Part of my hesitance to commit thoughts to paper came from my initial thought about the "You Can Touch My Hair" event: that it was mind-numbingly silly. I wasn't sure how to formulate cohesive thoughts on the whole thing...but its a necessary conversation, and one I'd like to contribute to at least in a small way.

MARYAM: There's a contrast to the National Museum of African Art discussion and the 'Can I Touch Your Hair' exhibit that basically speaks to my feelings on both. The panel discussion is interesting in that it recognizes a history then seeks to discuss it and problematize it. I don't see it as different from art expressions that have represented fashion/politics and overall cultural understandings of 'dress' which hair is in many ways.

AYANA: I appreciated the 'Health, Hair and Heritage' panel's attempts to at least situate their conversation historically. It definitely makes sense to have that discussion in a museum where questions about aesthetics, politics, history and authenticity are primary concerns.

DERICA: When you're dealing with the subject of black hair, you're also taking on the issue of U.S. society's attitude to black women more broadly and that's a minefield of racialised + gendered power dynamics. Like both Ayana and Maryam, I'm here for discussions and art-making that situate hair within specific social and cultural contexts: and that can be in a museum or on the street. But this 'You Can Touch My Hair' piece is not the one, given what I've read in Opiah's Huff Po article, the twitter responses, and seen in this video

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MARYAM: As for the 'You Can Touch My Hair' ish, I'm just not about it. I saw a lot of women tweeting from the exhibit mentioning having rich discussions during the exhibit so I guess that's productive, but what makes the exhibit particularly hard to mess with is Opiah's HuffPo article. Neither the argument nor the exhibit seems to be problematizing the 'otherness' of black hair or the curiosity. It just read as though she was trying to justify exoticism, which I didn't know we were trying to justify at all (smh at her dismissal of how asking to touch black people's hair is about the ownership of black bodies). If I'm not mistaken, history strongly suggests that we need to stop indulging white curiosity and trying to placate it no?

ZEPHYR: Clearly, the impetus behind such an event is not to interrogate these very important questions of body ownership, race, gender, and permission, as it seems the Smithsonian panel is at least attempting to do. Like Maryam, it read to me much more as a way to depoliticize a “hot topic" issue in order to make it accessible to white people. What strikes me most here, though, is the illogical thinking that allows someone to create an event like this, while insisting "there's nothing political here! it's just hair/curiosity!" Does the author not realize that without the race and gender politics at play here, there wouldn't even BE a "natural hair movement" or anything of the sort? It's there, whether she or anyone else wants to acknowledge it.

AYANA: Reading the article was a cringe-worthy experience. It was as though Opiah wants to invite the fetishization of black hair by nonblacks, while shaming (or at the very least dismissing out of hand) the blacks (and nonblacks) who feel immediately uncomfortable about the idea. Her reductive “research" came to a dangerous conclusion (it's not about a black woman's hair, it's just “curiosity" about “strangers"). At the end, Opiah stages what she calls a “loaded call to action" around hair that worries me because it also presumes equality in/around friendship. Basically, if you're curious about black hair and have a black friend (or someone you think is a friend) it should be fine to ask them to give in to your voyeuristic desire?

DERICA: Rather than engaging thoughtfully with those issues, I see an attempt to shirk them by making “curiosity" the buzzword: “ohhh, white people are just curious!" “nonblack people just fascinated by difference!" That said, I understand that one justification for this exhibit/performance is to allow black women to take back agency by preempting the invasive touch with the “You Can Touch My hair" sign. But I'd have liked the whole thing to challenge the power-dynamic even further. Something along the lines of: “You Can Touch My Hair, but then I get to touch you .... anywhere".

ZEPHYR: I also understand the attempt to create some semblance of agency for the black women participating by holding up the signs, but it seems to me the onus is once again being placed on black women having to justify their physical existence in response to white curiosity. It is never the other way around—why is no one asking why white people need to touch our hair so bad to begin with? Where's the political interrogation on that side? Maybe if it this wasn't one-sided, I could begin to be okay with it…but that's rarely been the case.

DERICA: I also think Opiah's out of hand dismissal of the argument that a sense of “white ownership" of black people might still pervade interracial interactions, denotes a failure on her part to properly engage with the history of the United States. Let's be real: as recently 150 years ago, black people in America had their heads forcibly shaved and were put on auction blocks where their bodies could be touched, tugged and prodded without permission. The legacy of that system and those actions takes some real working out.

ZEPHYR: This exhibit follows the age-old American tradition (not that we've been the first or last to do it) of re-writing history without its troublesome contexts to make things easier for white audiences to swallow. I can't be the only one who is sick of black history being reduced to sterile, uncontroversial "let's all just get along!"-type clips so that audiences won't be made uncomfortable. But without that history, the conversation doesn't actually exist, so what is the real point?

The other thing it does is assume that these conversations are not already taking place when they are, all the time, in communities around the country and the world. I think if nonblack people want to be involved in this "politics of hair" conversation—and I think everyone should, not just black women—they should be willing to acknowledge the legacy of race and gender power at the core here, and start from there. Without that, the 'Can I Touch Your Hair' event to me is nothing more than another instance of placating white desire to be down with black culture when its trendy to do so, without doing any of the real thought or work required to make that participation meaningful.

Like Paul Mooney said, "Everybody wants to be a nigger, but nobody wants to be a nigger." I'll leave with that.

Artwork: Barthélémy Toguo Lockdown Selfportrait 10, 2020. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co

1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair Goes to Paris in 2021

The longstanding celebration of African art will be hosted by Parisian hot spot Christie's for the first time ever.

In admittedly unideal circumstances, 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair will be touching French soil in 2021. The internationally celebrated art fair devoted to contemporary art from Africa and the African diaspora will be hosted in Paris, France from January 20 - 23. With COVID-19 still having its way around the globe, finding new ways to connect is what it's all about and 1-54 is certainly taking the innovative steps to keep African art alive and well.
In partnership with Christie's, the in-person exhibits will take place at the auction house's city HQ at Avenue Matignon, while 20 international exhibitors will be featured online at And the fun doesn't stop there as the collaboration has brought in new ways to admire the talent from participating galleries from across Africa and Europe. The fair's multi-disciplinary program of talks, screenings, performances, workshops, and readings are set to excite and entice revelers.

Artwork: Delphine Desane Deep Sorrow, 2020. Courtesy Luce Gallery

The tech dependant program, curated by Le 18, a multi-disciplinary art space in Marrakech medina, will see events take place during the Parisian run fair, followed by more throughout February.
This year's 1-54 online will be accessible to global visitors virtually, following the success of the 2019's fair in New York City and London in 2020. In the wake of COVID-19 related regulations and public guidelines, 1-54 in collaboration with Christie's Paris is in compliance with all national regulations, strict sanitary measures, and security.

Artwork: Cristiano Mongovo Murmurantes Acrilico Sobre Tela 190x200cm 2019

1-54 founding director Touria El Glaoui commented, "Whilst we're sad not to be able to go ahead with the fourth edition of 1-54 Marrakech in February as hoped, we are incredibly excited to have the opportunity to be in Paris this January with our first-ever fair on French soil thanks to our dedicated partners Christie's. 1-54's vision has always been to promote vibrant and dynamic contemporary art from a diverse set of African perspectives and bring it to new audiences, and what better way of doing so than to launch an edition somewhere completely new. Thanks to the special Season of African Culture in France, 2021 is already set to be a great year for African art in the country so we are excited to be playing our part and look forward, all being well, to welcoming our French friends to Christie's and many more from around the world to our online fair in January."

Julien Pradels, General Director of Christie's France, said, "Christie's is delighted to announce our second collaboration with 1-54, the Contemporary African Art Fair, following a successful edition in London this October. Paris, with its strong links to the continent, is a perfect place for such a project and the additional context of the delayed Saison Africa 2020 makes this partnership all the more special. We hope this collaboration will prove a meaningful platform for the vibrant African art scene and we are confident that collectors will be as enthusiastic to see the works presented, as we are."

Artwork: Kwesi Botchway Metamorphose in July, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957

Here's a list of participating galleries to be on the lookout for:


31 PROJECT (Paris, France)
50 Golborne (London, United Kingdom)
Dominique Fiat (Paris, France)
Galerie 127 (Marrakech, Morocco)
Galerie Anne de Villepoix (Paris, France)
Galerie Cécile Fakhoury (Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire/ Dakar, Senegal)
Galerie Eric Dupont (Paris, France)
Galerie Lelong & Co. (Paris, France / New York, USA)
Galerie Nathalie Obadia (Paris, France / Brussels, Belgium)
Galleria Continua (Beijing, China / Havana, Cuba / Les Moulins, France / San Gimignano, Italy / Rome, Italy)
Gallery 1957 (Accra, Ghana / London, United Kingdom)
Loft Art Gallery (Casablanca, Morocco)

Luce Gallery (Turin, Italy)
MAGNIN-A (Paris, France)
Nil Gallery (Paris, France)
POLARTICS (Lagos, Nigeria)
SEPTIEME Gallery (Paris, France)
This is Not a White Cube (Luanda, Angola) THK Gallery (Cape Town, South Africa) Wilde (Geneva, Switzerland)

For more info visit 1-54

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