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The African American Museum's Hair Story Exhibition Grabs History by the Hair

Works by "naturalista" LaShonda Cooks, who curated Hair Story.
Works by "naturalista" LaShonda Cooks, who curated Hair Story.
LaShonda Cooks
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Hair can be a deeply personal topic. For Oak Cliff artist LaShonda Cooks, its cause for reflection — about artistry and politics, especially for Black women. Recently, Cooks has been on a quest to collect stories about hair, resulting in Hair Story, an exhibition by seven artists at the African American Museum in Fair Park.

The idea for the exhibition came to Cooks last summer when she heard a poetry reading by the recently deceased Dallas spoken word artist Adam Tench, aka Rage Almighty, where he read a poem titled "Hair."

"It was the ending of the poem that connected with me," Cooks says. "He says, 'Don't forget the women who twist, who cut, who primp, who weave. The women who sleep uncomfortably, who sits in the same spot for hours just to get their hair right for nobody else but themselves.' I thought about that, and how to build on that idea of not forgetting the women behind the hair."

The exhibition, which runs through Feb. 13, showcases different hair expressions at a time when Black hair textures and styles are still polarizing. Historically (and presently), Black women have had to justify their natural hair texture and styling, especially in school and work settings. Some of these personal choices have landed them in court. Hair Story explores these topics.

Cooks says she's had four beauticians in her life, starting with her grandmother. 

"My first hair press was with Sister Pearson at church," she recalls. "My first perm was Ms. Willie who was a friend of my mom ... Each of these women represents a specific time in my life and being in an environment with multi-generations of Black women. I just wanted to honor them, both living and those who passed.”

Cooks reached out to beauticians and their family members for photos showing them at work. To curate the show, Cooks focused on 37 portraits of local women, such as Youveline Joseph, an artist featured in the show.

“I am connected to each of them in some way," Cooks says of her subjects.

"For years I've worn braids and got a lot of attention for wearing long braids, sometimes with blue hair," Joseph says. "That inspired how I created my two pieces for the show."

One line in Rage Almighty's poem also resonated with Joseph. It describes women sitting in the same spot for hours while working with hair.

"I even thought about the times I've spent 11 to 15 hours to get my braids just like I want them," she says.

Local traffic anchor and natural hair icon Tashara Parker is also included in the exhibition. Cooks asked the anchor to be her model after Parker received criticism from TV viewers for her natural hairstyle. Some of Parker's audience complained her hair was "unprofessional."

"I reached out to her and said, 'I love what you are doing, and I would love to paint your image,'" Cooks says of Parker. "She gave me a thumbs-up to use a photo of her."

Parker’s experience is not uncommon, but it inspired the artists featured in the show. Joseph thought about the stress Black women endure when deciding how to present their hair in a way that won't be considered offensive, choosing to limiting their creative hair expression rather than potential opportunities.

"'Do I wear my hair straight? Can I wear puffs? Would it be OK to wear braids?' We have to consider all of that, and that's what I wanted to express in my work," Joseph says.

Cooks is a "naturalista" who wears her hair without chemicals that alter the natural texture. In order to display her art on natural materials, she repurposed environmentally-friendly plates, which she uses as her canvases.

Cooks also worked with a company called Glamor 411, which educates curly and kinky-haired women about hair products, and created a "Fact and Fiction" section for visitors to read about Black hair as they walk through the exhibition.

Joseph was also inspired by Beyonce's Black Is King and recreated some of the braided hairstyles from the film. One piece called "Serenity" shows a young girl with butterflies embedded into her hair. Portraits in the exhibition are made from varied media such as motion sensors, paper, woven hair and street photography. They all showcase everyday people with extraordinary hair.

Cooks hopes this show will help women see themselves positively.

"Everyone who comes is affirmed through all seven artists' work," she says. "That's the power of it. If you are not Black or you don't have Black hair, you should see yourself among the work and learn about the hair experience in some form or fashion."

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