The perfect plaits

Korantema Anyimadu on how hair helps shape identity


Akua is featured in the exhibition Plaits, Princesses and Pink Moisturiser (credit Nana Ama)

The stuff growing out of your head might seem quite insignificant but for black people, and women in particular, it can lead to being suspended from school, expelled from the army, or branded as unprofessional at work.

Three years ago I started a masters in cultural heritage at University College London. I wrote my thesis on hair, black women and heritage. I spent months looking for books, films, or exhibitions on the topic, but at the time there were very few. I decided to interview 50 people myself and use their stories as the basis for my work.

Interviewing black women made me realise how deeply their experiences of hair were connected to ideas of beauty, identity, and family. Often, I found within families that the relationships between women had been nurtured through haircare. Growing up, my mum was frequently busy, working a couple of jobs. The only one-on-one time we had with each other was every Friday evening, when she braided my hair after swimming class. It was always uncomfortable sitting on the floor for two hours, but in hindsight, the time that she took was very special.

My photography exhibition Plaits, Princesses and Pink Moisturiser went on display last month at Locus of Walthamstow – celebrating black women and non-binary people and their hair. Each portrait was taken in prominent locations around Waltham Forest by the photographer, Nana Ama. I asked each subject to choose an object relating to memories of their hair and displayed their object at the exhibition – these ranged from a DVD of The Simpsons, to sports medals and a pair of tights.

I’m from Leyton, and I especially wanted to showcase the incredible black people who have a connection to Waltham Forest, including players from Leyton Orient FC, nurses from Whipps Cross Hospital, and the politician Dawn Butler MP, who grew up locally. I wanted people to realise there are beautiful places to visit in the borough, which is why we shot the photographs at places like the Vestry House Museum, William Morris Gallery, and Hollow Pond.

During its run, the exhibition became a space where black women could reflect on their experiences and share stories. It was also great to have people who had never thought twice about black women’s hair spend time carefully reading each story.

There’s a great community of artists in this borough, and I hope this exhibition can encourage more creatives of colour to share their work with others.