by Stephanie Phillips 

“Hair is just hair.”

Leeds-based artist Selina Thompson opened the London leg of her new interactive performance piece Dark & Lovely with this stark revelation. Dark & Lovely examines what it means to be a Black British woman and how the politics of hair have a part to play in our identity.

Standing outside a giant “tumbleweave” home, built from abandoned weaves and leftover hair extensions, Thompson beams and smiles in a shoulder length weave and a silk dressing gown. She welcomes the audience to come closer to her as she hands out rum punch and repeats, “Hair is just hair”; that dismissive phrase black women hear so often from others. You see hair is never just hair for black women, and Thompson knows this all too well. She details the times in her life when friends joked about her hair, made her feel lesser, cheapened or not worthy. Black women’s hair is never just hair.

We spend more time than we really should do, more money than we want to add up, shed more tears than we’ll ever admit to all over our hair. We do not do this because we are vain and cannot stop changing hairstyles every two seconds. It is because society is so obsessed with our hair, our appearance, our sexuality, that it tries to control every aspect of us. In turn we try and please the uncompromising beast in the hope that our efforts will stop the torment; but it never stops.

Despite knowing how hair politics can affect black women, within our own community black women are constantly told that we’ve spoken about hair too much. Can this really be true? We say these things to ourselves, and other black women, while simultaneously stressing about our own hair.

Perhaps since little has changed about our attitude to black hair we can still keep the conversation going just as Thompson has done with her funny, informative and personal show. On the outside of the intimidatingly large tumbleweave house the audience can barely penetrate the layers of hair to see inside Thompson’s world. They make what they can of the golden, personalised afro combs and hairdryers that adorn the outside of the tumbleweave that depict a dramatic, regal, larger than life and confident version of Thompson.

As the audience files into the cosy security inside the tumbleweave home to sit cross legged on the deep, warm burgundy carpet or perch around the edges, a certain vulnerability from Thompson is laid bare for all to see. Furnished with items from Thompson’s grandmother’s house, who sadly passed away, the walls were decorated with Thompson’s hair idols, family portraits and memories of the many times black hair was politicised.

As I sat on the carpet listening to Thompson talk I realised that my strongest connection to feeling good about hair and getting my hair done was sitting on the floor in between my mother’s legs while she braided my hair for school. We would usually watch TV together or read a magazine. Always something simple but it’s a closeness you only get as a child and a shared experience for most black women.

darkandlovelyDark & Lovely is a well thought out, deeply emotional and highly entertaining performance piece that not only explores black womanhood but puts it centre stage. My only question to Thompson would be to ask, who was the performance developed for? The detail in which she described aspects of black life for the audience felt like she was not speaking fully to black women, instead breaking from her story to bring white people up to speed.

Understandably a performance on black women’s hair without any explanations could be confusing for anyone who is not a black woman but perhaps sometimes it is better to follow in the footsteps of legendary writers such as Junot Díaz and Toni Morrison. They both strongly believed that when writing about your own community you need to speak directly to them, especially when they are rarely acknowledged in wider society.

Black women need their own space, room and/or tumbleweave where they can be accepted and told that they matter.

Dark & Lovely is at Ovalhouse London until 17 October (Wednesdays and Saturdays) and is on a UK tour until 28 November

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Stephanie Phillips is a journalist and blogger who runs her own blog about women in music called Don’t Dance Her Down Boys and contributes to feminist blog The F-Word. She is the singer and guitarist in Black feminist punk band Big Joanie. You can follow her on Twitter @stephanopolus.

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