Korantema Anyimadu: The Salon ‘Black women, hair and heritage’

Podcast & Transcript

To celebrate Women’s History Month 2020, Korantema Anyimadu, author of the the zine The Salon, joined us at ONCA gallery to discuss Black women, hair and heritage.


Korantema: I thought what I would do is, maybe, talk a bit about my journey and where I started. How did you guys hear about this? Had you heard about the project before, or did you just see it on the ONCA website and think, ‘Oh, I’d like to go’?

Audience: *Various responses including ‘Facebook’*

Korantema: Good, OK. My name is Korantema and for the last three years I’ve been working on this project on hair and heritage. And I work in museums and galleries and education freelance, and then I also work at Arts Emergency a few days a week.

I think a lot of where this project is coming from is from my personal experiences of being someone in those spaces and what it’s felt like, and then going into education … studying – I did an archeology degree for my undergraduate, and then a master’s degree in cultural heritage a few years ago. And then wrote my dissertation on hair and heritage, and that’s kind of where it all came from. But it’s been a bit of a wild ride because I didn’t expect to produce this stuff at this point, especially four years ago when I was in the dusty corners of the UCL archeology library thinking, thinking about why did I choose to do this with my life, but there we go.

Um, so that’s a little bit about me, I think working in museums and galleries… I never saw myself working in that space. I didn’t really see myself represented in the kind of classic things. We did go, as kids, and it did always feel a bit odd. And I couldn’t really quite put my finger on it. And it’s really only been, you know, I’m nearly 30 now, in the last three years that I’ve been able to build the vocabulary to think about why cultural spaces feel so… so uncomfortable.

So what I usually start with is just asking you: what word would you choose to describe museums? So maybe just take 10 seconds, think of a word, and we’ll shout it out. You can be honest here, you don’t have to be nice.

OK, time’s up. So, any words you want to offer?

Audience member: Thieving

Korantema: Thieving, yeah.

Audience: [Laughter]

Korantema: Let’s not waste time. Thieving, Anything else?

Audience member: Stuffy.

Korantema: Stuffy, yes.

Audience Member: Overwhelming.

Korantema: Overwhelming.

Audience member: Busy.

Korantema: Busy. Overwhelming. Yeah.

Audience member: Dusty.

Korantema: Dusty.

Audience member: Evocative.

Korantema: Evocative.

Korantema: They’re like a big range of emotional feelings you can get from stepping into a space like that. So, in 2015, I was working in an events company and then I guess I like had, like, an existential crisis or something, and I quit my job and thought, oh I don’t know what to do. Then saw this programme where you can apply to travel to different countries and research something they were interested in, and bring back your findings to the UK – it’s called the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

So I did that and looked at museums in the US, in the Netherlands and in Germany. So for two months I kind of toured around and went to visit museums and galleries and asked them what they thought about museums. And every time I met someone I asked them to choose one word, what they thought about museums. And it was pretty much a group of words, the same words that people used. So there are what they are:

Boring – um a lot of them … if you think about museums, usually the first thing people say is that they’re boring because they don’t feel like there’s anything relevant in them for them.

Exclusive – so, feeling that they’re not quite allowed to be in those spaces.

Old – full of old stuff. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

And theft – yeah. That the things in there are plundered. And only particular people say this.

[Shows image of museum scene in ‘Black Panther’] So I think this was a really big moment for museums and galleries, when this film came out, because I think it was the first time in the mainstream that people actually brought to the forefront like… who is the expert in museums? How do we know that what we’re reading is right? How are we interpreting this information? Um … who bears the knowledge and who is allowed to hold the knowledge?

And I think those kind of things I’ve always had, walking through museums. So, just a simple thing, seeing black people in museums, in art, in art galleries especially, is rare. And when we do see them they’re usually painted like slaves or possessions of rich white people. So there’s [shows painting] … you can’t really see it, but there, that’s the black servant who’s stealing something in the corner. They’re always used to frame a privileged person in the painting. And when that is the image that you’re constantly getting in museums or art galleries or these institutions that hold expert knowledge, then that’s where the feelings of discomfort come from.

And thinking back to school, and this is something that has also been debated quite a lot recently, especially with a curriculum so white, whose is the history that you’re learning? Who’s writing the books that you’re learning from? Who’s teaching?

I remember at school, I went to a majority white school in London, and we did slavery, and the teacher gave us an assignment where we had to write a speech on behalf of either a slave or a slave master. And then we had to read them out to the group. And she asked me and my friend, who was the only other black girl in my class, to read it out in an African accent.

Audience member: Oh my god!

Korentema: Yeah. And I was thinking, this doesn’t feel right, but I don’t really know how to say that as a 13 year old. So things that you learn in history. The Tudors, a lot about Henry… it’s just mad to me that I know all about King Henry VIII’s wives like, why do I need to know this information? A lot about World War I, but in a very one-sided way. Um, and then slavery is when you learn about black people.

I did an archeology degree as I mentioned, so I spent a whole year learning about pots and soil. But through all that time I never learned about things like this; so, I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Whitehawk Woman, who was found in Sussex actually, so here, 20,000 years ago. And I think, something I particularly found um … kind of distressing actually about learning archeology, was that you never, ever, ever learn about things like this.

So history, as we all know, is very white-washed. But so is prehistory. People don’t think about African people … people of African descent having a prehistory, basically. So when this came out there was a lot of debate with academics who thought, you know, how can we be certain that the Whitehawk Woman was dark-skinned? How can we be certain that her genes were of African descent. And the same thing happened with the Cheddar Man, he was also found around a similar time.

Then we have people like John Blanke, who was a really famous musician during the Tudor times. I think he’s one of the first recorded, written, recorded black people in English history. Phillis Wheatley, who I’m not sure if you’ve heard of, was the first black woman to be published. She was a poet who taught herself how to read and write. She was a slave, who taught herself how to read and write on the route to the Caribbean. There’s Ira Aldridge who was a very famous actor and the reason why I put him in here is, like the image that you saw at the beginning of black people in art. His portrait is in the National Gallery.

And then, thinking about World War II, my family’s from Ghana, my grandad fought in World War II. He was sent to Burma. And that’s a part of history that I never connected with the history that I learnt in school. So it’s completely separate. It was family history, it wasn’t educational. It wasn’t the dominant narrative. And the stories of these soldiers you don’t learn about when you’re at school. And one of my heroes, Mary Kenner, who invented the sanitary towel.

And there’s so much of history that you’re just not told. And I think for me, reflecting on all this, where I am now, it starts to build up … it starts to make sense to me basically. Those feelings that you get of discomfort or of also, kind of, disinterest. Because, why would you want to go to those spaces, if they’re not for you?

So fast forward to doing my master’s in 2016, and I came across these sculptures. So these are Nok sculptures and they’re from modern day Nigeria, about 10,000 years ago. And when I saw these – this, also, wasn’t part of my curriculum. This is something I found in the library. You can see that they’ve got cornrows in. And I think it was a moment that clicked for me because I was thinking. Um … I know that hairstyles are historical because we’ve been doing them for years and years. But it didn’t quite click to me that they’re part of our prehistory. I think seeing this in the book made me think, ah. Things started to click into place.

It annoyed me that I wasn’t learning about this. You know, I was paying like ten grand for this master’s and I wasn’t learning about… I was learning about pots.

Korantema: So the reason why that was annoying me was because of things like this: so people wearing cornrows who are not from African descent. And the issue with that for me, was that you get situations like this where people are reprimanded for doing something that has been part of their history for literally 10,000 years. There is so much misunderstanding. I think when I found this it was the time when there was this debate going on with Kim Kardashian. That’s when I thought, maybe it’s worth doing some research into this, and thinking about what does the archeology show about heritage in terms of hair.

So all those things, I think, about walking through art galleries, walking through museums, not really feeling it, or when you do see yourself there, it’s as a slave or as a possession, was thinking: that is me feeling misrepresented and underrepresented. When parts of your culture are taken or appropriated by other people, or when you feel like you’re not in control of how you are being portrayed.

And that happens, not just in history, not just in art and heritage, but everywhere. So, TV, art, beauty. Beauty is really interesting as well, I think, because after Rihanna invented Fenti, and I know that other brands were doing it before, like MAC, but it was such a big thing for companies because they were like, ah snap, black people do buy products, and then everyone had their own 40 shades, everyone had their own brands that were coming out.

Same with newspapers, politics and books. So when you feel misrepresented and underrepresented, I feel like that’s when you get um … that’s when you get erasure. So that’s where you don’t see yourself reflected, you don’t feel like the things that are being produced are authentic.

So in the midst of my existential crisis, thinking about erasure and what I was learning in academia, that’s when I decided to start this project called the Hair, Heritage and Identity Project. What I wanted to do was think about the stories that were intertwined with hair and, for me I think from a personal level, it’s thinking about relationships that are formed through hair.

So, growing up, it was my mum who did our hair, me and my sister, and it was ritualistic, it was every Friday, we’d go to swimming, and then she’d put on Eastenders and then sit down on this tiny, red, hard chair. And she’d do our hair, one after the other, for two hours. And at the time, obviously, it felt uncomfortable and a bit annoying, and you’d have to sit there and be patient, and you don’t want to watch Eastenders anyway but you have to watch it. And you’d just been swimming so your hair is tough. But, thinking about it now, it was a real sign of love from her. And if I think about me now sitting down and doing someone’s hair for four hours I’d be like… I love you, but I’m not going to do that.

Audience: Laughter

K: But with my mother, she worked shift work, she had two jobs, and she’d do our hair for four hours and then she’d go out to her other job at around 10pm. That’s the kind of thing you don’t really appreciate when you’re younger. And I think that’s what’s interesting about hair, because it sits somewhere where it’s a physical, tangible thing, but also it represents so much more. And it’s an interesting place that sits between pain, you know, physical pain, and also intimacy and love and emotion. I think it carries quite well.

So what I wanted to do with this project was explore that. Um, so I got together with an amazing photographer called Nana Ama, who took these portraits, and we visited different women in an area in northeast London and we asked people to choose an object that reminded them of their hair, and tell us about that object and the story around that object and why they chose it. And then some of them got their portraits taken with that object.

The idea was that… this was something we did a lot during my master’s in cultural heritage, was thinking about objects and objects as king. So when you walk into a museum or gallery, it’s the object that is the prime possession. It’s not so much the story behind it, it isn’t so much how it got there or the people that used it. Museums are trying to change that a little bit now, but it’s a slow process. And I don’t know if they really can do it. But that’s why I wanted to bring these objects in and to try and give them a bit of life.

So, I’ll tell you about a few of the pictures that we took. This is Akua, and she chose tights. She chose tights because of having to wrap her hair when she went to bed. And she just told me a story about how she had her first sleepover, when she was finally allowed to go to a sleepover when she was 14. And she took the tights with her because she had her hair pressed like two days before. She put the tights on her head and went downstairs, with the other girls. The girls were black, asian and white she said, and they all laughed at her like, what are you doing? And she was like – that’s when she realised, oh, is that not normal? Should I not be doing this? She took it off and her mum was so mad because her hair was messy when she came home the next day. And she was like, that really taught me something about feeling different. And it also made me think about how early on in your life you start… you recognise these things.

This is Otegha, she, she runs something called something called Women Who which is a collective for women, she runs events and things like that, and wrote a book called the Little Black book, which is great. She chose what she calls the holy trinity, which is Pink Oil moisturiser, Blue Magic and Sulfur 8.

Audience: The smell [laughter]

Korantema: The smell, exactly. And for her, she says those products are so great when you’re younger because they’re bright colours, they look fun, but then when you open them and the smell and then the grease stains on the headboard… And also we wanted to take the picture in the hair shop because something we’d talked about quite a lot was the hair trade and business, and who profits from the hair trade. So, as we all know, the black hair trade is huge. I think it’s about £8 billion in the UK. But the black hair shops – I don’t know what it’s like here, in Brighton. In London the majority of black hair shops are owned by South Asian men. I don’t know what it’s like here.

Audience member: We have, like, two.

Korantema: Owned by?

Audience: [Mumbling]

Korantema: You don’t know… I had this conversation with an auntie of mine actually, she saw no problem with the fact that those shops are owned by… not by black people. Because she said, it’s not something particularly, very good. But she said that at the time the shops started becoming popular, in the 80s, she said that black people weren’t entrepreneurial enough to buy up those shops in the high street. And at least these products are available to everyone. Whereas, when she first came to the UK it was really hard to find these products. And I was like, I see where she’s coming from, but it is something to think about, how can black people take ownership over something that is so intrinsic to our day to day lives, and that makes a lot of money. I don’t know what happens then when business is falling out of black people’s hands. So yeah, that’s something we talked about quite a lot with Otegha.

Then, these three go to college, so about 17, 18. I had a really interesting chat with them, especially Dee who’s on the right, who wears a hijab, and we were talking about faith and religion and hair. Hair and religion go hand in hand for a lot of cultures. So I think some of you probably know, if you buy virgin hair, for example, for a weave or wig, 90 percent of the time that will come from a temple in India, where women get their hair shaved ritualistically. And that gets taken, packaged and sold.

And same in the Jewish faith where hair is… there’s a really interesting book where, which talks about the global trade of hair and how it’s all connected. And there was a case in London where a Jewish wig-making shop – so when Jewish people get married they shave their hair off and have to wear a wig, and those wigs are usually human hair, and the hair usually comes from this temple in India that I was talking about.

But there was a case in London where they stopped selling Indian hair because it was, they didn’t want to have hair that came from a different faith or that was part of another ritual. So they started selling European hair. But then they actually found out that European hair was actually just Indian hair just repackaged as European hair. And then one of the rabbis who’s quite high up had like a phone conversation with one of the Hindu leaders about what they could do about the different faiths, but also supporting each other economically. And I just thought that was really interesting, how different cultures are brought together by something that seems insignificant but, actually, affects like a lot of people.

So with Dee, we were talking about how she feels about having to cover her hair. And she said that – she’s an amazing sportsperson, who plays basically every sport under the sun at college, and something that I found interesting was that she said she doesn’t like to cover her hair when she plays sport. And the reason is that sport, to her, is as important as her religion is to her. And the only time that people will see her with her hair uncovered is when she’s playing sport. She said that partly comes from being like… if she does wear her hijab she feels like, I mean in terms of practicality, she feels like she’s not comfortable enough to be at the top of her game. And that doesn’t matter for her because sport is so important, it’s such a big part of her life that she feels like that’s ok. And she said that she’s had interesting discussions with her family about that, and about how that feels.

With A here, in the red dress, we talked about what it’s like being of mixed heritage, and hair care. So her mother is white Irish and her dad is Kenyan. And she talks a lot about her mum not really knowing how to take care of her hair growing up. And how one side of her family would prefer her hair a certain way, and the other part of the family prefer it a different way, and how she kinda feels pulled in two different directions sometimes, because of that. And she said that to feel like she’s her own person, to counteract that, she basically dyes her hair a different colour every month. So it’s been every kind of pink to red, and she’s actually shaved it all off and it’s orange, it’s really cool. So her hair has become a place for her to show her personal identity, that’s not part of her family.

And then … this is Sarah, and I think Jojo, and we talked a lot about gender expectations, I guess. So Sarah wears wigs and is really great at making her own wigs, and her son Jojo has really long hair. She says that she gets a lot of questions from her family about the fact that his hair is so long, and he just had it cut a few days before this photo was taken, but it’s usually shoulder-length. And she says one of her aunties says it’s not right for a boy to have long hair, it’s not right. Her response to them always is, no one told Jesus he couldn’t have long hair so why should I tell Jojo? And I was like, what a perfect response. She feels like, she doesn’t feel comfortable with her own natural hair and having that out so, for her, it was instilling that in her son, because she didn’t feel like she had it herself.

And then, I spent a lot of time with the elders in the community. What I found interesting when I was researching for my dissertation, which was looking at identity and hair throughout different generations, was how – so these women are all over 70 years old and a lot of them came during the 40s and 50s. With their perception of what is professional and what is, I guess, elegant, a lot of the women used the word elegant quite a lot. And I think, for them, coming to a place that was very racist and feeling that they needed to fit in and be seen as professionals so that they could get jobs was really important. So they talked a lot about pressing their hair with hot irons, and relaxing their hair, and most of them still do to this day.

But, what was interesting was the idea of cottage salons. So, the first hair salon was in Brixton on Railton Road, and it was run by a woman called Winifred Atwell who, if you research, is actually amazing. She was born in Trinidad, was a classically trained pianist, and then came to the UK and became really famous by playing the honky tonk piano, which is a genre of, kind of like ragtime. Got her own show on the BBC, a 10-part series where she would have different guests and do recitals. All the episodes of that were lost, I don’t know why. And set up the first ever salon for black women, and then trained lots of hairdressers in how to do afro hair, including white hairdressers. And so basically was like the mother of black hairstyling in London.

And Joyce, who is there with the glasses, got her hair done at her salon and showed me a picture. And at this point I didn’t know that happened, but she brought the photo in and said, “Oh, yeah I got this photo taken,” and I asked where it was taken and she said, “Oh at someone’s salon, run by someone called Winifred Atwell,” and I was like, are you kidding me? And it was the original photo she’d written on the back the date and time that she’d taken it. And she said that Winifred Atwell didn’t take everyone’s photo so it must have been a really good job. I can show you the picture of it later.

And then something that we talked about quite a lot – this is Simonie – is what happens when you lose your mother. Something I was really interested in was the idea of sisterhood, motherhood, and how those relationships are nurtured. And what happens when those people are taken away. And Simonie, her mum used to do her braids for her, all the time, and she said that since her mother passed away years ago, she hasn’t really been able to wear braids because that’s something that reminds her of her mother. And at the time she was getting her hair done her mum used to do, like, half her hair and like, I’m sorry, I’m tired, and she’d have to go to school with half her hair done and be mortified, and she got bullied because of that.

But the mother plays a very special part in people’s lives and, similarly, this is actually my mum, and she’s holding a picture of my grandma, which you can see in that frame. When my grandma died, she was initially – so in Ghana, when someone dies, you lay their body out for a few days before you bury them. The person who dressed her body put a wig on and my grandmother was 100 percent against wigs, she never wore wigs in her lifetime, it was something she was personally against. So that was something that upset my mum quite a lot because she felt like that wasn’t part of her story. And my grandma had red hair, she was kind of known as Mafra which means albino lady in Ghana, so she had bright red hair and was quite freckly, another gene we have in my family. That was a big part of her persona.

The things that you learn usually come from the three hours where you’re sitting in between the legs of your grandma or your sister or your mum. That’s when stories are passed down, that’s when you find out about each other’s week, that’s when you learn. And it’s quite interesting thinking about when those things are taken away.

So I’ve just really quickly gone through some of the stories, all of these are in the zine. But I think what I was most interested in were the different threads that you can get from talking about something that seems very everyday. And I created the zine as a way of capturing that. So there are stories about sexuality, about gender, motherhood, about sisterhood, and I think what’s quite special is that every position is unique. There’s no real right or wrong. I think there’s a lot of pressure sometime to look a certain way or do a certain thing, because those pressures are coming externally and internally from family, from your work, from friends. But it’s –  because it’s so emotional, actually, and it can be quite painful. Sometimes it’s just quite nice to sit and reflect and think about all the different impacts that make you feel a certain way, if that makes sense. Um, so that’s a very quick run-through of where I came from and how the zine came to be made. That’s it.

Susuana: Awesome

Audience: Applause