NAKEYA BROWN: Post "good hair" & the rituals of black girlhood

In 2009, a documentary called Good Hair directed by stand-up comedian Chris Rock was released to critical acclaim and became a systematic reference when it came to understanding what’s up with black women’s hair. The documentary is never mentioned in the following interview with New York-based photographer Nakeya Brown, whose first installment is entitled “The Refutation of Good Hair,” but one can't help but think of the documentary when encountering the work of Brown. Like Chris Rock, Nakeya Brown was inspired by her daughter, but her work is more sensible, more empathetic, because it is more curious. Her new work, characterized by a softness and sensitivity – two qualities not largely associated with black girls and women – paints a portrait of black girlhood through hair rituals, objects and cultural icons in hues of mustard, pink and blue. Nakeya Brown’s work is a refreshing, atypical and quietly radical exploration of black girlhood through hair. interviewed by Fanta, edited by Fatima

The Refutation Of Good Hair By Nakeya Brown

Black Girls Talking: What’s striking about your earlier work, “The Refutation of Good Hair,” is how confrontational it is. There are black women eating kanekalon hair, looking right through the camera. It shows how complex, sometimes tortuous, the relationship black women have with their hair can be.  But it’s not just about this relationship, it’s also about the gaze of others.

NAKEYA BROWN: Absolutely. This particular series really has so many entry points for discussion with the gaze being one of them. The gaze of others upon us, but also the black female’s gaze upon herself—situated at the intersection of both race and gender— is a long-standing point of friction.

BGT: Compared to "The Refutation of Good Hair," your newest untitled work is characterized by quietness or stillness. "The Refutation of Good Hair" is almost at the level of body horror. Your new work seems to be “post good hair,” as if you wanted this question of “good hair” to be over. Hair will never be good because it’s not something to be consumed. It just is. Did you envision it like that too?

BROWN: The politics of black hair has endless possibilities. TROGH represented two varying viewpoints- rejection & acceptance. You’ll notice that each of the models donned various hairstyle. Whether weaved, locked, cut low, or worn in an Afro, there in each of them I found beauty. I discovered after I completed the project that to a certain degree, I needed to accept all of these as “black”. What I really wanted to reject, was the commonplace ranking of these styles amongst society. Following TROGH, I felt that it was time to begin exploring black female identity in an unconventional way. This spawned the string of still-life images shortly after that removed the physical presence of the body.

BGT: What emotions do you feel are never invoked to describe black women’s art? What emotion would you invoke to describe your own work and your state of mind while creating?

BROWN: It’s not often that I hear a black woman’s art described as “curious.” While creating all of my work, I am overwhelmed with curiosity. I do not think my body of work would exist without it. I remember feeling genuine curiosity as I watched my natural growing in just after chopping it off. At the same time, I also felt angst about what signals it emanated. While creating, I tend to capitalize on the curiosity or the angst to create an image that translates our experiences into something that is visually engaging.

BGT: To continue on my “post good hair” theory in relation to your work: in your new work you show icons like Minnie Riperton or Diana Ross who all had different kind of hair. Do you want us to accept that “good hair” was never a thing? It wasn’t even a thing in the past?

BROWN: Post TROGH, I was still very interested in exploring beauty and blackness. I loved the idea of my work being a stage for that exploration; the pictorial representations of black female musical icons stood at the center. This series is less about “good hair” and more about examining beautification products (hair dryers, shower caps, Indian hemp grease, comb, etc) and their human by-products (Chaka Khan, Natalie Cole, Minnie Riperton, Deniece Williams).  

BGT: What is radical about your work is also something that can be said about YouTube tutorials made by black girls and women which also documents hair rituals. It's not about questioning whether natural or synthetic hair is "good hair," it’s about hair rituals and the objects used during these rituals. It’s more about the knowledge of one’s own hair and not about what others think of it.

BROWN: Exactly! I’m so interested in revealing the secret lives of black girls so to say. Private moments, which often don’t make it to the public sphere, now can be up for discussion as well. Whether natural or not, we all practice these beauty rituals and my work is a record of that.

BGT: Your photography work constructs a portrait of black girlhood through objects and cultural icons we don’t even get to see in most visual media like TV or films, because anything that is associated with black girlhood is ridiculed, erased or appropriated. Your work is restoring something. Black women relationship to their hair can be tortuous, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes we just burn our ends while listening to Diana Ross. Sometimes that’s how it feels to be a black girl.

BROWN: “The Art of Sealing Ends” Part I and II, is void of any physical or mental torment. I’m more concerned with representing the act, the maintenance, and the manipulation itself. It’s a look at the hair for what it is and not what it means. I imagine that series will have 6-8 more photographs before it’s complete.

The Art Of Sealing Ends: Parts I & II

BGT: Let’s talk about color in your work. Do you associate colors with memories or specific emotions?

BROWN: I associate my palette with feminism. The soft hues of blues & pink, mustard yellow, purple, and cream suggest the presence of a woman. A woman made these choices. My work is a space for softness, delicacy, and girlishness.

BGT: Like a lot of artists you’re present on Tumblr. Social media allow a new way of experiencing art, more democratic, more collective. The risk can be that the relationship with the audience never goes beyond the dashboard. How do you feel about sharing your work on social media?

BROWN: Social media is the leading agent in getting my voice as an artist out to a global audience and at the same time, it allows my audience to engage with me as well. I love being able to track its reach and the ways in which others interpret it. Eventually there will be an exhibit in which the work fits and it transcends the dashboard/social media platform.

BGT: Do you have new projects, exhibitions you want to talk about? 

I recently partnered with AADAT Art, an innovative art platform, to distribute select prints of my work through their new initiative called A!Market. You can browse the store for prints available for purchase by clicking, here.  At the moment, I am spending most of my time making new work and conceptualizing what I’ve already put out. I am always in need of models and encourage girls in the New York / New Jersey area to drop me an email: if they would ever like to be a model in my projects!

Nakeya Brown, who goes by Keya, is a New York based photographer who currently lives in New Jersey. She graduated from Rutgers University with Bachelors in Photography in 2006. Since then her work has been shown in New Orleans, Chicago, and Washington D.C. Currently I live in New Jersey and work in New York. She's the mother of 2-year-old Mia, her greatest inspiration.   

Nakeya Brown, who goes by Keya, is a New York based photographer who currently lives in New Jersey. She graduated from Rutgers University with Bachelors in Photography in 2006. Since then her work has been shown in New Orleans, Chicago, and Washington D.C. Currently I live in New Jersey and work in New York. She's the mother of 2-year-old Mia, her greatest inspiration.