In Formation
by Lauren Hardie

It’s not common among straight-haired little girls to be told that their hair is “bad” for being too “difficult.” Grown women all have their struggles, but seldom are those with straight hair told that their hairstyle, albeit clean and groomed, is too “unprofessional” for the workplace.

Yet, every black woman has heard some variation of the aforementioned about her kinky-curly hair, often since childhood. Hair—and other parts of a black woman’s body, but in particular the thread-like strands that grow from her head—somehow became a way to tame, control, and monetize the black woman.

Good hair vs. bad hair, the skin tone spectrum, body shape/size, and other things that black women are constantly told in order to determine their beauty, are all directly tied to their ideas of self-worth.

One Garifuna (or Afro-Latina) woman, Sulma Arzu-Brown, realized she could either be angry at the situation, or become part of the solution. In an attempt to re-direct the narrative and create a healthier outlook for her young daughters, she wrote a book called “Bad Hair Does Not Exist.”

Particularly in the United States, black women—all women of color—are so often expected to conform to “white” standards, that on the rare occasion they’re outspoken about their pride in their heritage, the collective white world loses its mind, see here.

If it’s surprising to you that women, especially those whose skin is of a darker persuasion, appear to be getting together to empower themselves, then it’s clear: You haven’t been paying attention.

ISIS, Jerome Soimaud, graphite & acrylic on canvas, 84 x 70 inches, 2015

ISIS, Jerome Soimaud, graphite & acrylic on canvas, 84 x 70 inches, 2015

In honor of Women’s History Month, Yeelen will be extending its current exhibit “What’s INSIDE HER never dies,” through April 3rd, 2016.

Since its inception, Yeelen—which means “brightness” in Bambara, the lingua franca in Mali—has been illuminating art that reflects a dynamic understanding of blackness and human experience. The fast-growing art space has dedicated itself to becoming an incubator, offering the perspectives of historically marginalized groups, and being an outlet for contemporary urban culture, all while seeking to progress, not change or force out members of the local community.

Yeelen has also served as the venue for both the promotion and elevation of afro-centric feminist issues, which is precisely what “What’s INSIDE HER never dies…” is about. Perhaps the most visible example of this is the recent, Circle of Mothers panel held at the gallery space in Little Haiti during Art Basel 2015.

Stemming from art—which, to be honest, is never simply “art”—and bleeding into social commentary, “What’s INSIDE HER never dies…” is allowing Yeelen to strengthen it’s role in raising awareness, encouraging dialogue, and ultimately bringing about change to the social issues at hand.

Beyond hosting local events and showcasing black women in art in the Little Haiti-based exhibit, Yeelen is taking the show on the road, so to speak…

Tim Okamura, oil and mixed media on canvas, 72 x 60 in, 2013

Tim Okamura, oil and mixed media on canvas, 72 x 60 in, 2013

A piece showcased at Yeelen,  I Love Your Hair, by Tim Okamura, has been selected by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery as a finalist for the Fourth Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.
For the first time, the Outwin exhibition will travel around the country, beginning this March in Washington, D.C. at the National Portrait Gallery, until January 2017. With Okamura’s piece, the exhibition carries with it a powerful message of loving one’s own hair, and by extension, loving and embracing oneself.
As monumental as an extended Smithsonian tour is, it’s just the beginning—a small step in the right direction—of much larger issues that so urgently need to be addressed.

Yeelen has chosen to be part of the solution, and we invite you to join the conversation.

See you in March!