Are wigs, headgear, combs, pins and barber shops signs art? "Hair in African Art and Culture," a new exhibit that opens at the IU Art Museum today, has successfully proven just that. \nFirst organized by the Museum for African Art in New York in 2000, the exhibit was touted as one of the museum's most popular exhibits. Organized by late IU Professor Emeritus of art history, Roy Sieber, and Frank Herrman, director of exhibitions at the museum, the exhibit explores the role of hair in communicating social roles, symbolic gestures and status in African countries with artwork and photographs that span a 100 year period.\n"The variety and creativity of hairstyles depicted in the exhibition's artworks and photographs is tremendous," Diane Pelrine, curator of African Art at the IU Art Museum, said. "Hair has different associations in different areas, and even in the same area, it can be regarded in different ways depending on the particular circumstances. Hair may be associated with death and disease, on the one hand, or with sexuality, fertility, and vitality, on the other."\nHair style can also convey status, political power or serve as a sign of beauty.\n"In traditional African cultures, hair can convey several different meanings," Pelrine said. "Depending on the culture, particular styles and ornaments may indicate whether a youth has undergone initiation (rites and ceremonies that mark the transition from childhood to adulthood), whether a person is married or belongs to a particular group, or whether a person is in mourning. \n"Hairstyles can also be associated with political offices, and, of course, hairdos frequently reflect an individual's sense of personal aesthetics. Carefully styled hair -- or, in some areas, a smoothly shaved head -- is a criterion and symbol of health and beauty. Africans admire beautiful, well-done hairstyles and they are a source of pride for their wearers, just as they are in the U.S." \nThe exhibit will feature more than 60 objects including masks and figures with elaborate coiffures, as well as objects for dressing and adorning hair, like pins and beads, wigs and other headgear, and colorful barber and beauty shop signs as well as photographs that span form the early 20th century to the present. The works in the exhibit showcase the constant change of hairstyle over time. \n"The exhibition shows that hairstyles have been important in sub-Saharan Africa for a very long time," Pelrine said. "Styles have changed, to be sure, but the the basic idea that hair can tell you something about an individual and/or his or her culture remains constant."\nIU is the permanent home of many of the pieces featured in the exhibit. Some of the pieces were acquired by Sieber as well as by IU professor William Itter and some of the pieces are from the permanent collection of the IU art museum as well as from other private collectors.\nSieber was the first person in the United States to receive a Ph. D. in African art history in 1957. In 1962 he came to IU and helped found IU's now renowned African Studies program and propelled the development of the African art display at the IU Art Museum during his forty year association with the University. \n"For decades he was interested in exploring African art beyond the carved wooden objects that most people think of when they think of African Art. So this is a continuation of a long like of those sorts of exhibits," Ellen Sieber, Sieber's daughter, said. \nSieber was instrumental in opening the eyes of collectors and curators to the artistic beauty of the useful mediums of African textiles, head rests, and jewelry. He did this by pioneering exhibitions that featured everyday objects made and used by African people as art, namely "African Textiles and Decorative Arts" (1972) and "African Furniture and Household Objects" (1980).\n"I think there were some initial questions about that approach, but once the exhibit opened and people saw how beautiful the objects were they were convinced," Ellen Sieber said. "After his textile show in the 1970s, African motifs started showing up in commercial clothing. The exhibit really inspired designers. There was some resistance at first, but the art itself convinces people as soon as they see it."\nParallels between African and African American hairstyles can also be seen. \n"Africans see hairstyles worn by African Americans, and vice versa. Aspects of hairstyles, or entire coiffures may be borrowed, modified, or recombined," Pelrine said.\nTraveling to Africa isn't necessary to see how this type of artwork relates to individuals' everyday lives. Maybe that is why this exhibit was so popular when it opened in New York.\n"Hair is something everyone deals with, so it might seem less distant to them than other forms of art. Because everyone has to think about it, it doesn't seem so abstract. It is lively and inviting so you can go in and relate to it," Ellen Sieber said.\nAlthough African art is often comprised of utilitarian items, Patrick McNaughten the Chancellor's Professor of African Art History, believes that African artworks give viewers powerful insight as objects of contemplation.\n"African societies and art traditions are full of ideas and life experiences that involve thinking about what it is to be a responsible, successful and satisfied person. Very often African art deals with these kinds of ideas by emphasizing people's carefully designed appearance as a window into their character and accomplishments. The Hair show illustrates that, and in the process offers Americans all sorts of 'food for thought.'"\nTonight's opening will begin at 5:30 p.m. in the first floor Atrium of the art museum and feature a gallery talk by Diane Pelrine at 6 p.m. and a performance of African Music by the local band Afro Hoosier International. The event is free and open to the public. The exhibit runs from May 24 to July 28.
Get stories like this in your inboxSubscribe