February 10, 2015
I recently reconnected with one of my favorite photographers and past featurees, Nakeya Brown. Her work has long captured my attention; I first interviewed Nakeya four years ago in the very first A Look Through My Lens posting I put together. Nakeya’s most recent photo series, Hair Stories Untold, explores elements of black female identity as it applies to the act of hair care. Drawing inspiration from her own girlhood experiences, Nakeya brilliantly captures the intimate, sacred, and often scrutinized aspects of beautification amongst black women.
I asked Nakeya a few questions about her “Hair Stories Untold” and "if nostaliga were colored brown" series. Her responses to my questions accompany the photos below.
GG: As is true with any piece of art, the meaning derived from the work varies from viewer to viewer due to differences in perspective. In the case of your work, a black woman will view your photographs very differently than an individual “outside of our circle” will. Although your work will be perceived multiple ways, is there a singular message you wished to convey in “Hair Stories Untold” and “if nostalgia were colored brown”? If there is no singular message, what are the key messages you want a viewer to take away from both these series?
NB: The construction and reimagining of the black female identity is a singular theme that ties all of my works together. Hair Stories Untold centers on the multitude of hair processes we employ whereas if nostalgia were colored brown concentrates on creating a sense of identity through imagined feminine spaces and found objects.
GG: What guided your decision to utilize pastel colors in both these series?
NB: There’s something inherently feminine about these colors that compliment the feminine topics in my work.
GG: You’ve mentioned you draw a great deal of inspiration from your own girlhood experience, particularly regarding hair care. Can you recount any of those experiences? How did they shape your current view on black hair?
NB: In “The Art of Sealing Ends, Part II” within Hair Stories Untold there’s an illustration of hands burning the ends of braids with a lighter. That photograph brings me back to when my mother would install box-braids in my hair and then seal the ends to give each braid a neater appearance. She would grumble here and there when she’d burn her thumb during the process—but not matter what, it was a vital part of the process. Hair Stories Untold represents the various forms black hair can occupy. I think black hair is very multi-dimensional and I’m interested in making work that displays its fluidity.
GG: I noticed the faces of the models are obscured in “Hair Stories Untold”, as opposed to “TROGH” – could you explain the significance of this difference?
NB: Hair Stories Untold represents the unknown, unspoken rituals within black hair care. I was intrigued by how far I could push a photograph to depict the level of obscurity that’s tied to our hair culture. Since I was more focused on revealing the act itself, the need to portray faces felt beside the point.
GG: The props used in both these series work well in what you’ve referred to as “constructing a sense of identity through objects and giving the pictures a sense of humanity that’s rooted in a black feminist aesthetic”. Could you expound upon the significance of a few of these objects, such as the hot comb, hair grease (as I affectionately refer to it), satin cap, etc.? What do they mean to you specifically?
NB: I think these objects are so special because they have the power to sustain a shared experience for women of color. They can communicate a piece of our history and it’s so important that we preserve those stories. That’s what I hope my work is able to accomplish as well.