BHVU Gallery

Hair has long since been associated with a woman’s appearance, attractiveness, and femininity. In Victorian times, whilst the neck and shoulders were covered up during the daytime, hair was the only exposed, visible and distinctively feminine part of a woman’s body. So much so, that hair became a focus of sexual interest. The Pre-Raphaelite artists are notorious for their preoccupation with the sexual power of hair in the form of strangling, ensnaring motifs. From the late 19th century onwards, the iconography of female hair was increasingly related to Freud’s famous interpretation of the ancient meaning and power of Medusa, therefore linking women’s hair to masculine neurosis. Redon’s hairy spiders, Degas’ animal-like prostitutes detangling their hair in bathtubs, and Magritte’s eroticised female head (‘The Rape’, 1934) all reveal that the representation of hair embodies not only a male fascination with (a certain form of) female beauty, but also a deep-rooted fear of the femme fatale. By contrast, as women artists became active in the 20th century, hair became imbued with self-reflexive meanings, making it a potent site for the symbolisation of gender. Favouring self-representation, Surrealist women exhibit the instinctive and wild, destructive power of femininity using hair. Artists such as Frida Kahlo, Meret Oppenheim and Dorothea Tanning suffused their own fur and locks with meaning related to loss, metamorphosis and emancipation. In the 1970’s, minimalist artist Eva Hesse lined boxes with spine-like materials. More recently, Millie Wilson created ‘The Museum of Lesbian Dreams’ (1990-1992), a work using wigs, while Dorothy Cross made subversive boots using cow skin and nipple-like spurs. Both artists reveal the rich and powerful contribution made by women artists in their use of hair as both medium and symbolic vessel for the contemporary psyche.

By bringing together an impressive collection of artwork connected to hair, the all-female exhibition ‘Braided Together’ provides a snapshot of today’s practice based on the same theme. Hidden away from both the West and East end artistic hubs, Basket House Village Universe (BHVU) is a small and friendly artist-run gallery suitably located on the edge of town/cultural practice.

It was Frida Kahlo’s ‘Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair’ (1940), painted shortly after her divorce with Diego Rivera, that initially motivated the concept behind the show. In this painting, Kahlo’s previously long and flowing hair lays severed and lifeless on the floor, at once revealing her renunciation of Diego Rivera, as well as her loss and suffering as a woman in love. Rebecca Baillie, co-curator of the show, drew connections between the painting by Kahlo and a photograph by Elina Brotherus. Brotherus produced a diptych called ‘Wedding portraits’ (1997), from the series ‘Das Mädchen Sprach von Liebe’, in which the artist’s severed hair is held in the hands of her new husband, perhaps speaking of love as sacrifice, or loss as renunciation of her sexual freedom. Samantha Sweeting’s work, ‘Separation’ (2008-2009), is composed of a perspex box containing two cut-off ponytails and a pair of scissors. This piece also pertains to the rites of love, encapsulating love’s eternal and transient nature while preserving its memory in a clinical, modern-day mausoleum.

In the four paintings ‘Hair Play I – IV’ (2011), Wen Wu appears to sneak behind women’s backs and smear their hair with thin licks of paint. She forms intricate styles and pulled-up coiffures from which ears and eyes protrude, thus making uncanny portraits of an otherwise subdued femininity. The pastel, somber colours of Wu’s work remind one of old, quaint houses populated with departed souls and hidden secrets. The transfiguration takes place as we glimpse the inviting necks and erotic hair of the sitters and we are left with the creepy feeling of also being watched.

‘Hairpurse’ (2004) by Tabitha Moses is a contemporary Surrealist object par excellence: the silver clasp of a purse firmly holds a long ponytail of neatly combed, silky black hair. Whilst the soft but dead hair both attracts and repulses, its power of seduction is curtailed through its association with money, security, control and restraint. In Purity and Danger (1966), feminist anthropologist Mary Douglas discusses hair as a symbol of social control and deviance as well as desire. According to Douglas, the shorter the hair the more constrained the body is by social rules. Having long hair, on the other hand, signifies a person who stands outside convention and points towards a wild, intuitive nature. Mary Dunkin’s photographs taken from the series ‘Women with Long Hair’ (2007) depict the incredibly long and sumptuous hair of a woman lying on the floor, a woman getting out of a swimming pool, and a woman playing the piano respectively. The hair’s natural waves of these models ripple downwards and towards the trembling surface of the water, or the patterned, geometry of the golden, wooden floor. So deep is her communion with nature that the woman at the piano seems to float above the keyboard, in a disembodied state, in tune with the otherworldly.

A number of works in ‘Braided Together’ also depict women’s bodily hair in an effort to appropriate a sign that has been pushed aside in cultural discourse. Indeed, while the hair on top of women’s heads is valued and admired, body hair is described as unfeminine and remains typically hidden or removed. In The Last Taboo : Women and Body Hair (2007) cultural critic Karín Lesnik-Oberstein suggests that ideas surrounding hair have the potential to become a language on the very edge of meaninglessness and can thus be used as a subversive strategy for women artists. Marcelle Hanselaar’s ‘Hairy Beauty’ (2010) is a compelling painting of a seated nude woman whose belly, chest and back are all covered with coarse brown hair. The woman’s piercing tiger-eyes with menacing expression intensify her animal, instinctive nature. Her short haircut contrasts with her visible body hair, which challenges the boundaries of gender in ways that, in the words of Lesnik-Oberstein, might ‘reveal femininity as that which hides within itself the potentially masculine’. Hanselaar’s oeuvre could be compared to that of Paula Rego, for each depict ambiguous human/animal narratives imbued with psycho-sexual intrigue and are painted in a raw, physical style that verges on the obscene. Hanselaar also includes two dark and powerful etchings. Both ‘The Foreigner’ (2001) and ‘Evermore’ (2010) allude to the sexual dimension of hair in relation to the female body, each exploring the queer and more sinister side of the female primal instinct.

Jessica Lagunas’ video piece ‘Preoccupation (Grey Hair)’ (2007) leads the viewer to more prosaic concerns: to the inevitable effects of ageing and the pointlessness of attempts to cover increasingly visible grey roots. For two minutes that feels more like an hour, Lagunas has filmed herself methodically pulling out coarse grey hairs from her soft scalp. The artist never fully succeeds in removing all of the hairs, which renders the tedious and painful process all the more absurd, and exposes us as the vain and unwitting agents of our own subjection to socio-cultural norms of an ideal feminine.

Beyond the rules and conventions that have affected the female body throughout history, hair has been infused with a myriad of socio-cultural meanings, increasingly formed and complicated by female agency. In the image of Marion Michell’s quaint object, ‘My House of Howls’ (2007) – made entirely of crocheted hair – ‘Braided Together’ knits a strong community of women artists. All of the artists, although each in their own way, explore hair as a privilege site of the female body where intimate pleasure and suffering, cultural anxieties and social pressures, are all at play in the construction of a female identity.