The intricate art of sculpted hair celebrating black identity is front and centre of British Vogue’s April issue. Made up of four different covers around the theme of “joy”, each edition features different models (Achenrin Madit, Precious Lee, Mona Tougaard and Janaye Furman) with their hair moulded into spherical, coloured balls.
But the trend is not new. “In the 60s and 70s hair sculpture became part of the black consciousness movement,” says Prof Carol Tulloch, the author of The Birth of Cool: Style Narratives of the African ciaspora. “Gravity-defying hair creations contributed to the black is beautiful [ideology] and revelled in the beauty of black hair.”
It is no coincidence that the resurgence of the trend of manipulating black hair into shapes with a message follows three important moments in black history: the natural hair cause, the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests.
As Vogue’s Edward Enninful writes of the cover in his editor’s letter: “[The models] understood that projecting black joy, in the wake of so much reckoning, would hold particular significance.”
Last October, before the US presidential election, the singer Lizzo posted a selfie on Instagram with her hair shaped into “40%”, highlighting the proportion of Americans who failed to vote in 2016.
The summer campaign for Marc Jacobs’ bags featured remarkable photos of the artist Laetitia Ky with her hair shaped into a hand, a dog, and the initials of the designer. Ky’s Instagram account features her using wire, wool and needles to create political hair art structures that symbolise police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The purpose of my art has always been to fight for equality, to empower people and to promote the beauty of blackness,” Ky, 25, says. “I can’t imagine stopping using my art to fight.”
Ky takes inspiration from the coifs of pre-colonial Africa, where certain tribes would mould their hair to express power and strength. These hairstyles were documented in photographs by white travellers and anthropologists and rendered by artists.
Tulloch mentions a cover of Harper’s Bazaar featuring an illustration by the artist Aaron Douglas from 1927 with a Mangbetu woman whose hair is “fanned out into a broad trump”, and a sculpture by Dora Gordine from 1928 featuring “the head of a black woman from Guadeloupe, her seemingly natural hair moulded … to create a high crown”.
For Ky, hair sculpture is a perfect merging of art and activism. “Using a creative way to speak about important topics is a very efficient way to raise awareness,” she says.