An Interview With Nakeya B, Written by Alisha Acquaye
Ryan hit me up one day. "I need you to do me a favor, when you get the chance," he said. If words could bounce out of text messages and depict tone and emotion, life would be much easier, more personal, and a bit unrealistic. But I guess that's why we rely on emojis and exclamation marks so much.
Thankfully, Ryan doesn't cut any corners, so after I responded, he came right out with it - dead ass asked me if I'm down to write a guest post for Léte Mag about a black feminist photographer - in Léte style, of course. How am I doing so far, Ryan? Léte readers?
I ecstatically obliged. After conducting some quick Google searches of the camera flicking feminist, checking out her Tumblr and noticing that other mags have hunted her down too, even the intimidatingly cool Afropunk, I thought: maybe I am ahead of myself?
Don't get me wrong, Nakeya B is a deliciously and dangerously dope photographer; delicious, because her aesthetic is purely seductive to the eyes, and dangerous, because her subject matter is equally confrontational. Upon first seeing her work, I found it fascinating, unsettling and...confusing. The regular person in me took one look at her photographs and thought, "what the hell?” There are women eating hair, hair wrapped around a fork, hair sitting parallel to a plate of home cooked food. Hair, hair, hair, as if hair is a delicacy, a commodity, a piece of laundry women can hang on a clothesline to dry.
Then I remembered that I have an Art History degree, an Art History degree that I have not used much since graduating almost three years ago. The art historian spirit within me emerged: "Ah-ha!" I thought. Nakeya is saying hair is a commodity, hair is something we obsess over and even metaphorically ingest, hoping that its good nutrients will rub off on us and make us pure and perfect in Western society's eyes.
Then, more loudly in my brain, "This is brilliant! This is clever, colorful, remarkable! How has Nakeya so effortlessly evoked the black female hair struggle in a series of playfully colored yet visually jarring hair images? Remarkable."
Then I waved some black power fists in the air and whipped my twists back and forth because I can. I dug deeper into her internet archive and visited her website, a place that is as pale, pretty, and to the point as her work. Her three collections: “The Refutation of Good Hair”, “if nostalgia were colored brown” and “Hair Stories Untold” tells a narrative of the black female's relationship with hair, right back to our historical roots.
A.A: Why did you decide to go natural?
N.B: I decided to go natural because I felt I had outgrown the perm. I grew more and more frustrated with the commitment it required and found myself in a place where I was exhausted with the process. I slowly stopped perming and was in an in-between phase of natural roots and permed ends for a while. That also frustrated me. One morning I woke up and just cut all of my hair off in the bathroom. I had a few patches of course, but it was the first time I had seen my natural hair in its entirety. It really, really was a life changing moment which led me on my own natural hair journey.
Why did you decide to choose such a bright and playful color palette for your work, rather than the more expected pan African colors of green, yellow, red and black?
My palette is definitely something a lot of people ask me about. “Is that an intentional thing?” “Those aren’t normal pan African colors.” Black artists usually don’t work with those sorts of colors. “The Refutation of Good Hair” was made two or three months after giving birth to my daughter. I was constantly surrounded by those sorts of colors. I was opposed to anyone buying her pink things. I asked everyone to buy her baby yellow. I was still really close to that process of entering motherhood and maternity and having a daughter while making “The Refutation of Good Hair.”
Also, I am two things. I am black and I am woman. Before anything, I want my work to be identified as feminist and having womanly qualities. I did that through my content and color palette. What I talk about in my work is really political. It's my most aggressive photo work, in which I look at the black woman's experience and how we are made to feel less beautiful through our hair. Our hair is racialized, and pigeonholes us into these standards of beauty that we can never obtain by simply being ourselves. I wanted to use my palette to bump up against that frustration and anger.
I don’t want to be an “angry black female” making work. The palate softens the black female aesthetic in general. We are type casted as being aggressive, frustrated, outspoken and opinionated when making our works. While I was that, I am not only that.
The colors make the work more digestible as well. I am not a combative person or a radical. The palettes being so approachable is me trying to make my work more approachable as well.
Considering the natural movement, your work and the way that society is beginning to slowly adapt to a rounded view of black women, how do you hope the future will be for your daughter?
I don’t know what her future life goals are. But I know that before she gets to that point, the first hurdles she has to get over is society, and the way society will consciously and subconsciously shape the way she views herself. My work creates a new trajectory for her, a young black girl growing up in the 21st century in America, to look at. I want her to be able to look at works of art, or any visual culture, and see her stories and her experiences in it.
Pop culture has a very specific image. I don’t think that, for as long as I can remember, black girls have been a part of universal pop culture. Growing up, I loved Aaliyah, 3LW, Blaque – they were all these super cool women of color doing super weird or creative things out of the norm. I didn’t get a ton of that on an everyday basis. I want this work to bring that option into her everyday life, so she has the opportunity to do the unexpected and be okay with that. I would love for the work to give her courage to embrace her blackness and womanhood, to activate that sense of pride within all women of color, to encourage us to have conversations about our sense of identity and not be ashamed of ourselves.
I agree with your response. Growing up in the 90s, we had a small but interesting selection of eclectic female artists that showed us that black women can be weird, quirky, sexy, strong, smart, nerdy, emotional, goofy and daring. We had Missy, TLC, Aaliyah, Mya and more. Young black girls today, and all girls, should see many types of women and their personalities represented in media and art. Speaking of - What artists and photographers influence you?
The last album I bought was D'Angelo's Black Messiah. Before that was Frank Ocean's Channel Orange. I’m not a big album buyer and don’t know much about what’s new out. These days I listen to Minnie Ripperton, Honeycomb, music from the ‘60s and ‘70s, Aretha Franklin. I think ‘90s R&B is the best. Tony! Toni! Tone!, that whole school of Motown R&B. I find I don’t really listen to what's new on the charts.
I used to wonder if I was missing anything -
You're not missing much.
- But I don’t feel that way anymore.
Art wise – I mean, there's so much art out there. The first person’s art that made me so excited in a while is Mickalene Thomas. I love her ‘70s interior spaces and the feelings it evoked. Just seeing black women in a space that historically we were not welcome in inspired me. Also, Renee Cox.
These days I am looking at a lot of things and I don’t know exactly where they come from. I don’t know if it's just the internet age and the lack of attribution. It is. I know it is. Now I can just scroll on Tumblr and get inspiration without walking out the house.
I started collecting vinyl and I shot a bunch of them in “if nostalgia were colored brown”. I enjoy looking back at how the black female image was constructed in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when it wasn’t all about sex and exploiting our bodies; when it was more about glamour and natural beauty. I'm really attracted to artists and music from that genre and time. It was all about love and being you, rather than money and sex and other things I feel music these days focus on.
Embarrassing hair story?
I've had braids fall out here and there, and I had to scoop them off from the floor. I think that is so embarrassing! Besides the “runaway braid”, there was the time when I nearly scorched half the front of my hair off. Me and my best friend were having a "perm your hair at home day". She did everything right (she parted it in fours and put the perm down), I think she just moved too slow. Also, she started in the front. By the time she was finished my hair was on fire, but I didn’t want to rinse it out, because we had to make sure the perm "took". So when I finally rinsed it out, the front of my scalp was so tender. I blow dried and wrapped it and a couple of hours later I took the wrap down. My hair was literally crusted into my scalp, and my scalp was raw and tender. I pretty much gave myself a third degree burn. For a while the hair there was thin and didn't grow back. It took a couple of years. The lesson I learned was to start the perm from the back!
But I think the most embarrassing would have to be when my braids fell out and I had to scoop down and pick it up. “Okay, nobody saw that right? Cool!”
(Giggles) That’s happened to me a lot.
They start to come undone! They (hairdressers) braid the very edge of your hair so tightly, and the tension of it makes your hair just fall out. Then you get the white curiosity. You go into school one day and your hair is completely different. They ask, "Is there a new student in the class? You're a whole different person." I didn’t get the joke. I was the same me, it's just that my hair was different.
I have a friend in the military who goes through similar experiences. My friend told me that her white comrades did not understand her hair – how she can have an afro puff one day and Senegalese twists the next. They thought her hair grew!
(Chuckles) I think all black women interacting with white people will experience their fascination and curiosity, and would have to explain black hair to them. It can be too dynamic of a thing for them to wrap their head around. If I wear an afro and pin the sides up, some white people I know will say, “Oh my god, you cut your hair! You shaved your hair on the sides!” No, I didn’t. It’s just pinned it up. People think it’s a magic trick. Yea, black hair is really complex man.
It is really complex. But I think the bigger issue is that white people take up the majority of media. When you watch a TV show and see a variety of white people, you understand that there is diversity in how they look. Some have black hair, red curly hair, straight brown hair, etc. There typically aren’t as many black people represented in the media, and even when there are, white people don’t usually watch many black TV shows. So when white people come across black women in their everyday lives, that’s when they notice that there is a great variety in our hair textures and styles. There’s a miseducation of race in the media, which causes us to be misinformed and stereotype how people of different races and cultures look.
Media is the master teacher. It reaches so many people and has so much control over public perception. It's like you’re fighting against a machine. As a photographer, my work is my weapon of choice. Artists of color use their work as weapons of choice as well, and choose to insert their identities within their work to ensure that the audiences they reach can understand more about their experiences.
What is your favorite food?
(This question is actually the one that Nakeya stumbled on. It took her about 5 minutes to narrow it down to one food. I thought it would be best to leave out her “umms”, her questions on which food type she should choose from, and her comparing and contrasting cuisine, to let you know that it is pasta.)
Didn’t you see that question coming?
Oh! You probably thought I was going to say whatever was on that plate (in The Refutation of Good Hair). But if I could pick my top 5, soul food is up there.
Well, I guess I should just come out and say it. What made you decide to use hair as symbolism for food?
The idea came to me shortly after giving birth, when I was with my daughter in her rocking chair putting her to sleep. She had the newborn hair, you know, the soft, super-thin, fine textured hair. I remembered thinking to myself; her hair is going to change. Then I thought; I know that the way she is perceived will change.
If her hair stayed like that when she got older, that silky-soft texture, she will be treated differently, as opposed to if her hair became kinky. Having to accept that is what pushed me to make a body of work about it. That’s why the TROGH is specifically about hair. I wanted to make a body of work that refutes the whole notion that you get treated differently according to your hair texture.
I don’t know if the TROGH would ever have happened without me giving birth to her, because she is directly linked to the light bulb that went off in my head and sparked this idea.
I wanted to debunk the phrase “good hair” by making a photo essay with women eating hair. I wanted the act of eating hair to override what the historic meaning of what good hair is. To make us question this gesture and its link to that idea. Ultimately, it worked out that not everyone in the project was natural. I realized that after shooting it. Someone's hair is cut, another's hair is colored, and someone had a weave in. It made me understand that black hair is not one or the other. It is a multitude of styles.
I think you'll notice my work changed between the ROGH, “if nostalgia were colored brown” and “Hair Stories Untold”. In the first project I was looking at myself through these Eurocentric standards that I will never occupy naturally, because I was not born that way. As my work progressed, I didn’t want to look at my work through the white gaze anymore. I felt I had more power as an artist by looking at the black feminist experience.
Where do you think the future of black women’s hair and its relationship to society is headed?
That’s a good question. I definitely think that being natural in 2015 is different from being natural in 1970. Right now, being natural is symbolism of our freedom to express ourselves fully, whereas being natural during the civil rights era was more of a political statement.
I would like to say hair is not as political as it used to be, but on the other hand I think about things like the army regulating the way women wear their hair, or Don Imus calling the Rutger's basketball team "a bunch of nappy headed hoes"; then I think of the anxiety I felt when I graduated from college and it was time for me to get a job and I was told that corporate America will never let me in because I'm natural. So yes, I want to say that hair is not as threatening or as much of a racial signifier as it used to be, but it still is. But I think amongst progressive thinkers, natural hair is a product of creativity and freedom.
There is something youthful and refreshing about being natural. I think people want to capitalize on it and create a big natural hair care industry. In that sense, I think it is commercially viable. There are many black women building enterprises off of natural hair. So natural hair is important and is a serious contender in the hair market.
At the same time, I think it is still a very sensitive and delicate thing for people of color. There is so much insecurity around it. I think as more women are going natural and embracing themselves and being a part of daily conversations, we will move towards a greater acceptance of it. It is a slow move, but it is definitely a move.