Hair is often an important factor in a person's identity.
On RuPauls Drag Race, we saw drag queens celebrating their identity through their hair. The new program the Big Blow Out showcases some of the most innovative hairdressers and styles in the UK.
This inspired us to take a look at the celebration of hair in Cumbria, and the lived experience of three women when it comes to their hair and identity.
Earlier this month, Tullie House museum and art gallery launched Hair: Untold Stories. A retrospective on all thing’s hair.
From the resourcefulness of the one of the thinnest materials on earth, right the way through to local hair-stories that highlight the experiences of Black British people, this exhibit has history, culture and more. The exhibit is broken into three sections; Hair as a Material, Hair Care and Entanglements each with a unique narrative on hair from past to present. The start of the exhibition looks at ingenuity of hair in The New Age of Trichology which is the study of hair and scalp with a Dutch designer that used hair to create rope, a bag and even a bottle holder.
These pieces look at hair potential for use in product design to reduce waste and ease pressure on other non-renewable materials.
Amongst this part of the exhibit is the use of hair for religious and cultural needs.
There was jewellery, a dress and even a cake made from hair.
The Hair Cake is inspired by the Victorians love of hair and the Blond Hair Dress is by the artist Jenni Dutton who was musing about the fate of discarded hair.
The hair care part of the exhibition explores identity through film, objects and photography.
October is Black History Month, and this exhibition is not short of experiences Black British people face when it comes to their hair.
The short film Barbershop (part of the hair care exhibit), was shot in four barbershops across North London. It explores the conversations that are had between barbers and their customers.
The stories they share with each other reflect on similar lived experiences when it comes to their global majority and British identity.
It’s immersive, informative and insightful of what a modern-day Barbershop looks like exploring personal struggles, joys and navigating hardships.
The exhibition also highlighted the hair-story of Faniry Sinclair, a mixed heritage Malagasy, British activist and designer who lives in Carlisle.
Faniry in front of their piece at Tullie House
They explained how their hair has been on a journey ever since they were a child. “My mum used to braid my hair with beads and when I went to school the other kids loved it
"It made me realise my hair is special because no one else had the same hair as I do”
Faniry as a child with the beads in their hair
Although, when Faniry was nine and moved to Madagascar, where their mum’s heritage lies, it was a completely different story.
“Colonisation from the French meant that having natural curly hair was deemed not desirable and because Madagascar is an island in the Indian Ocean, many of my school friends who were mixed heritage had straight hair similar to that of Malaysian or Filipino hair.”
In a desperate bid to fit in, Faniry would go to their friends house and lie on the floor and get an iron to straighten their curly hair. Despite this going against Faniry’s mum’s wishes to keep their hair natural: “People used to call my hair nappy and ask why I didn’t have hair like my sisters and would associate it with being dirty because you don’t wash your hair when it’s braided and there was a horrible misconception of what curly hair is.”
Faniry wearing braids as a child
They add: "When I went to school with straight hair people would compliment me and say things like ‘you look so much better with straight hair!".
Faniry’s hair journey as a teenager was one of conformity: “When I was 14 and moved from Madagascar to Carlisle I made a few friends who would get their hair bleached and highlighted. A lot of our conversation surrounded hair and beauty that reflected the standard society perception of what is deemed as the ‘norm’”
Faniry wore extensions and dyed their hair to fit in. Her friends only point of reference to black women were celebrities like Beyonce and Nicki Minaj. Faniry admittedly says: “It’s quite sad because I was imitating what they wanted to see of me”.
Faniry as a teenager wearing extensions and straightened hair
For Faniry, university offered a multicultural environment she had never experienced in Carlisle and that’s when they established their own identity:
“The creative aspect of being so versatile with my hair stemmed from being around people expressing themselves and it was an interesting turning point for me as I became more confident on exploring what I can do with my hair”.
Faniry on the opening night of Hair: Untold Stories
Going to university made Faniry realise the beauty of their hair and she reflected that in Cumbria she tried to become someone she wasn’t to fit in.
Hair is a large part of Faniry’s identity because of their heritage:
“I’m from Madagascar and each tribe has distinctive hair styles and hair dos and for my tribe we have our very own hair style in braids for ceremonial purposes. I love my hair now. It's part of my culture, my crown, my heritage, my power and my blackness and my identity”.
Faniry and their husband Andrew
Entanglements is the part of the exhibition that focuses on hair loss through cancer, baldness, alopecia and stress.
It looks at what having hair means to people through wigs and film.
Don’t Pull by Habiba Nabisubi looks at Trichotillomania: a misunderstood mental health condition characterised by an irresistible urge to pull out one’s hair. In the film The Cut, we hear Ann-Marie Bainbridge’s story of losing her hair through work stress and her struggle to access a hairdresser in Carlisle.
Ann-Marie always had her afro hair relaxed for both manageability reasons and partly because society conditions you to think it’s the ‘professional’ way to have your hair.
Ann-Marie even took the long train ride down to London for her hair because she felt there was nowhere in Cumbria that would be able to manage her mane and that’s where Boyd hairdressers stepped in:
“Heather, my lovely hairdresser didn’t look in horror when I walked through the door, she just had a willingness to learn.”
Ann Marie getting her hair done by Heather Carr from Boyd hair and beauty
Ann-Marie wanted viewers to take this away from the film:
“If a Black or Brown woman or man walks through the door of a hairdressers don’t be frightened, our hair isn’t difficult or undesirable it’s different!” Adding “you can learn to look after it and we can guide and teach you on what works for our hair”.
Ann-Marie concluded that hairdressers are missing a trick when it comes to Black and Brown hair:
“We spend an awful lot of money on our hair so there’s a potentially huge gap in the market out here in Cumbria”
Heather talking about how more hairdressers should learn about afro hair and give it a go
In the same film we also hear from Evelyn on her hair story:
“I used to change my hair almost every two weeks when I was back home in Uganda. Moving to Carlisle and realising I had to maintain my hair myself was such a shock.”
(From left to right) Faniry, Evelyn and Lindsey at the premier of Hair: Untold Stories
Evelyn couldn’t access the hair products they use and it became harder with time to manage their mane: “It affected my mood and self esteem so I took upon myself to learn how to manage my hair and the first time I braided my head successfully was such a winning moment.
"I have carried on to educate myself on various hair styles for afro hair and in turn my self esteem has come back to me.”
Photo: Eating the other explores the way in which commodity culture and racial capitalism devour racialised bodies.
Hair: Untold Stories is an exhibition that takes you on a journey.
It tells of the need for environmentally friendly resources, the need for change in the hairdressing industry in Cumbria for those that have non-white hair types.
It tells of how hair can have a real impact when people are dealing with conditions that result in hair loss.
Tullie House is holding an event for Black History Month this weekend for the exhibition and they are inviting people to a whole afternoon of celebration, creativity and conversations rooted in Black History. You can get tickets here.
To discover the full exhibition head down to Tullie House in Carlisle where they will be showing the exhibition until January 14th next year.