Hair is an important part of our identities and our collective histories. It, alongside head wraps, can bare connotations of wealth, status, and cultural identity in many indigenous or otherwise traditional communities. Quite often politicised and seen to be controversial, black hair (especially women’s) and black hairstyles often find themselves in precarious waters.
In recent months, Solange Knowles and Lupita Nyong’o saw both their hairstyles edited to fit on magazine covers. Nyong’o criticised Grazia UK for “smoothing” her hair to fit Eurocentric ideals, while Knowles’ elaborate braid, resembling a crown, was airbrushed out. And those heralded for sporting the same hairstyles (see Kim Kardashian and the cornrows ‘boxer braids’ debacle) tend to appropriate without due recognition.
“I look at stuff on media about headwraps or braiding and see non-black models or celebrities getting the credits,” says Vicki Igbokwe, creator and leader of Uchenna Dance. “It’s like, no. Stop the press. Who hasn’t done their research? That’s absolutely false. But I feel like in those moments, if she [Kim Kardashian] takes ‘Boxer Braids’, as she’s calling them, and talks about where it has come from and credits the culture that has been doing this for forever and a day, she’d have less of an uproar. I feel like that’s the whole issue with cultural appropriation.”
Despite her frustrations, you won’t find politics in The Head Wrap Diaries. Conceived in 2014, the show was a means to address Igbokwe’s own particular hair journey, but evolved into a celebration of hair, and a space for others with similar experiences to bond. This is the result of a calculated approach that ties in with the company’s ethos – to empower, entertain, and educate.
“Hair is absolutely the catalyst,” she says. “But then outside of that and alongside that, I’m a woman, so it’s coming from the female perspective – things around womanhood, sisterhood, culture and beauty standards.
“For me, making people feel good about themselves is number one priority. To be honest with you, when I was designing this I didn’t have a clue about what I was doing. All I knew was how I wanted people to feel.
“I wanted the audience to come in and feel like they’d gone on a journey of self-discovery, of learning about others, and a shared experience with [different] people.”
The final, yet ever-growing design of The Head Wrap Diaries is a three-part “total experience”. First, a pre-show multisensory installation of art, poetry, hair and headwrap displays (and drinkable conditioning smoothies which promote healthy hair). Second, “a funny and uplifting” Hip Hop dance theatre show, featuring the fierce trio of Shanelle Clemenson, Sheila Attah, and Habibat Ajayi, that blends the club styles of House, Waacking and Vogue, with African and Contemporary Dance. And lastly, the post-show Head Wrap Bar – an opportunity to meet the company and learn different ways of tying head wraps.
“We’re making something that if you do know about these things, if you are a black woman, you do have curly afro hair, you [get to] see something that represents you and shows you in a really positive and empowering light,” adds Igbokwe. “But it had to serve the people that had no idea what a big chop is, don’t understand the textures of afro hair, don’t know different ways you can tie a head wrap, or don’t see black women in [mainstream] images.
“I thought about the different types of people that I wanted to attract. Being a black woman who makes choreography and creates productions, part of my debate with the powers that be is that my work isn’t just for black people, it isn’t just for women or black women. The people I want to interact with is a very universal audience.”
As Igbokwe adamantly reiterates, it’s not just about hair. The audience comes first. And the Head Wrap Bar, which met initial resistance from venues because of the nature of audiences not sticking around, highlights this purpose.
“The first one [Head Wrap Bar] that we did was at The Place [in 2016] and it just took off. We’ve done like 12 or 13 shows so far and at every single venue, we’ve had at least 50% of the audience stay with us.
“I had people come up to me and say ‘I heard about your show and I’m a white woman, and I thought I wasn’t going to get it, and it wasn’t going to be for me. But I’m so glad that I came because I totally connected with it. And I may not have that hair texture but have my own journey trying to prolong not going grey because I constantly dye my hair’. That kind of connection is what we’re looking for.”
The Head Wrap Diaries is currently touring with Shanelle Clemenson, Sheila Attah, Habibat Ajayi, Natalie Bailey and Emmanuella Idris. For information on tour dates, visit Uchenna Dance.