Hair of the woman

Last week I had a hair cut. Like flower buds in the trees, springy curls danced around my face, shining in the midday sun. Cleared of its dark, entangled matters, my mind was set free for the day. I felt like a whole new woman. I let my hair down that night, and danced till the early hours. I went back home looking like a dishevelled dog.

Hair has long been tied to women’s appearance, attractiveness and femininity. In Victorian times, as neck and shoulders were covered up in daytime, hair was the only exposed, visible and distinctively feminine part of a woman’s body. So much so, in fact, that hair became a focus of sexual interest. The Pre-Raphaelites are notorious in their preoccupation with feminine sexual power in the form of strangling, ensnaring hair. From the late 19th century, the iconography of woman’s hair increasingly prefigured Freud’s famous interpretation of the ancient meaning and power of Medusa, linking it with masculine neurosis. From Redon’s hairy spider representing his fear of the femme fatale, to Degas’ animal-like prostitutes detangling their hair in bathtubs and Magritte’s eroticised female head with floating hair in The Rape, the representation of woman’s hair embodies the male fascination for (a certain form of) female beauty as well as the more sinister side of women’s seductive power. As women artists became active in the 20th century, hair became imbued with self-reflexive meanings, making it a potent site in the symbolisation of gender. If Surrealist women’s self-representations exhibit the instinctive and wild, destructive power of femininity, artists such as Frida Kahlo, Meret Openheimer and Dorothea Tanning also threaded into their fur and locks other significances such as loss, metamorphosis and emancipation. In the 1970’s minimalist artist Eva Hesse stuffed boxes with hairy projections, and more recently, Millie Wilson’s series of wigs from The Museum of Lesbian Dreams and Dorothy Cross’s subversive boots covered with cow skin concealing nipple-like spurs reveal the rich and powerful contribution of women artists using hair as a medium and symbolic vessel for the contemporary psyche.

The all-female exhibition Braided Together brings together an impressive collection of works, giving a snapshot of the practice in the 21st century. Stuck away from the West and East end artistic hubs, Basket House Village Universe (BHVU) is a small and friendly artist-led gallery suitably located on the edge of town/cultural practice.

The artwork that motivated the show was Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, which she painted shortly after her divorce with Diego Rivera. Her once flowing hair lays dry on the floor, showing her renunciation of Rivera, her loss and suffering as a woman in love. Rebecca Baillie, BHVU co-founder and curator of the show, drew connections with Elina Brotherus’ diptych photograph Wedding Portrait – Das Mädchen Sprach von Liebe, in which her severed hair lays in the hand of her new husband, speaking of love as sacrifice and loss as renunciation of her sexual freedom. Samantha Sweeting’s Separation, a perspex box containing two cut-off pony tails and a pair of scissors, also pertains to the rites of love, encapsulating love’s eternal and transient nature and preserving its memory in a clinical, modern-day sepulchre.

In Hair Play I – IV, Wen Wu sneaks behind women’s backs and smears their hair with thin licks of paint, forming intricate chignons and pulled-up coiffures from which ears and eyes protrude, making uncanny portraits of an otherwise subdued femininity. Their washed-up, somber colours remind of old, quaint houses populated with departed souls and hidden secrets. The transfiguration operates as we glimpse at their inviting necks and erotic coifs, and leaves us with the creepy feeling of being watched in return.

Hairpurse by Tabitha Moses is a Surrealist object by excellence: the silver clasp of a purse firmly holds a long, sinuous ponytail of neatly combed, silky black hair. While the soft but dead hair both attracts and repulses, its power of seduction is curtailed through its association with money, security, control and restraint. Feminist anthropologist Mary Douglas saw hair as symbolising social control and deviance as well as desire. The shorter the hair, the most constrained the body is by social rules. Wearing long hair, on the other hand, signifies a person who stands outside the rules, but also symbolises our wild, intuitive nature. Mary Dunkin’s Women with Long Hair series of photographs show the incredibly long and sumptuous hair of women lying on floors, getting out of the pool, playing the piano. The hair’s natural waves ripple down their backs and onto the trembling surface of the water, or mesh with the geometry of the wooden floor. So deep is her communion with nature that a woman at the piano seems to float above the keyboard, in a disembodied state, in tune with the otherworldly.

A number of works depict women’s bodily hair in an effort to appropriate a sign that has been kept aside from cultural discourse. Indeed, while the hair on top of women’s head is valued and admired as one of the ultimate signs of femininity, body hair is described as unfeminine and remains an area unspoken about except by the medical and cosmetic industry. Denied the possibility of meaning, cultural critic Karín Lesnik-Oberstein suggests that it has the potential of becoming a language on the very edge of meaninglessness – and thus can be used as a subversive strategy for women artists. Marcelle Hanselaar’s Hairy Beauty is a compelling painting of a seated nude woman whose belly, chest and back are covered with brown hair. The woman’s piercing tiger’s eyes and menacing look intensify her animal, instinctive nature. Her short haircut contrasts with her visible body hair, which challenges the boundaries of gender in ways that, in the words of Lesnik-Oberstein, might ‘reveal femininity as that which hides within itself the potentially masculine’. Hanselaar is a Paula Rego for the 21st century, depicting ambiguous narratives and psycho-sexual intrigues in a raw, physical style verging on the obscene. Her two dark and powerful etchings The Foreigner and Evermore allude to the sexual dimension of hair and the female body, exploring the queer and more sinister side of the female primal instinct.  The Foreigner depicts a woman with facial and body hair up to her shaven sex and legs, sitting provocatively on a wooden stool, her legs on pointy shoes shape-shifting into a pair of goat’s feet. Evermore has the mysterious bird of Poe perched on the naked shoulder of a woman tied up with her own hair, suggesting auto-erotisation, self-inflicting pleasure and pain, and the ambiguous interlocking of sex, love and death.

Jessica Laguna’s Preoccupation (Grey Hair) leads me to more prosaic concerns, the effects of ageing and the pointless attempts at covering my grey roots, increasingly visible on the top of my head. For two minutes that feels like an hour, Laguna filmed herself methodically pulling out the coarse white hair from her soft scalp. She never entirely manages, which renders this tedious and painful process all the more absurd, and exposes us as the vain and unwitting agents of our own subjection to socio-cultural norms of an ideal feminine.

Beyond the rules and conventions that have affected women’s body throughout history, hair has been infused with a myriad of socio-cultural meanings, increasingly formed and complicated by female agency. In the image of Marion Michell’s quaint object My House of Howls made of crocheted hair, Braided Together has knitted together a strong community of women artists exploring hair as a privileged site of the female body, where intimate pleasure and suffering, cultural anxieties and social pressures are all at play in the construction of a female identity.

Braided Together is at BHVU until 18 March.


~ by lavivette on March 17, 2012.

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