Untangling the root of the matter

The gesture feels so intimate, it’s as if we shouldn’t be watching. The woman in the leotard hunches over a bucket. She dips her fingers into a thick black liquid, before raking them over her scalp. She mops the ground with the substance, the swish of her hair marking the floor with lines and splodges and patterns. As she shuffles backwards on all fours, the audience exits the gallery. She commands the space and imbues her movements—which we read as servile and degrading—with power and authority in the process. 

Loving Care, a performance by the American artist Janine Antoni, took place in 1993 at London’s Anthony d’Offay Gallery. It was named for the brand of dye the artist’s mother used to cover the greys in her hair. The work, which winks at images of abstract expressionists in their studio, is on show as part of Hair Pieces, an exhibition that explores the cultural significance of hair at Heide Museum of Modern Art. It exposes the rituals women undertake in private to be taken seriously. The acts of maintenance—so often unseen and unwitnessed—that female bodies carry out. 

Performance with Loving Care hair dye, Natural Black. Dimensions variable. Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates at Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London, 1993 © Janine Antoni; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Hair has always reflected the workings of gender and power. In folklore, it’s a symbol of youth and beauty. Rapunzel was desired for her blondeness. Snow White had hair as “black as ebony”. In Ana Mendieta’s 1972 photographic series Untitled (Facial Transplant), which unfolds along a red wall at Heide, the legendary Cuban-American artist appears in profile. 

The moustache she wears is the result of a collaboration with her friend, the writer Morty Sklar. Mendieta neatly reveals the rules of femininity and masculinity as arbitrary by gluing strands of Sklar’s beard to her own upper lip. Like Antoni, she shows us how hair is never just hair but a synecdoche for the female body. To dye or tame or remove hair—or refuse to—is to subscribe to a society that places women on a spectrum. To be desirable, or deviant, or somewhere in between. 

“It exposes the rituals women undertake in private to be taken seriously.” 

In the 1990s, when I was a teenager, hair was abject. The sting of an epilator, the sensation of burning wax was an attempt to curb unruly bodies. To participate in a culture that granted basic respect in exchange for your palatability. This imperative, a July 2023 Vogue article tells me, is—happily—being challenged by Gen Z, who came of age in a world in which “male gaze” is as much theory as it is social media hashtag. 

But hair still feels political. It grows against our will. It falls without our knowledge. A strand—separated from a root, appearing where it shouldn’t—has the power to shock or repel or disgust. 

Sonia Boyce, Exquisite Tension 2005, 1 cube monitor video, HD in colour (shown without photographic print). Edition of 5 + 1 AP. Video duration: 04:07 min © the artist, Hauser Wirth.

Hair, of course, has long been bound up in colonial hierarchy. To straighten your hair is to appear respectable, to announce a proximity to whiteness. In Pencil Test 2, a 2012 video work by Kemang Wa Lehulere, the South African artist recreates the ‘pencil test’—in which a pencil, slid into a person’s hair, sorted you into a category. To be ‘Black,’ ‘Indian’ or ‘Coloured’ was to determine your housing conditions, your access to opportunities.

Untitled (Hong Kong Cage), 2019, one of the show’s most poignant works, sees the Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum place balls of her own hair in a bird cage she bought in a Hong Kong market. The nest-like forms—so small and fragile, clustered together in a corner—don’t just speak of the incarcerated female body. The sight of hair, detached from its roots, recreates, in the viewer, a visceral feeling of displacement. It doesn’t just recreate enclosure but enacts its psychic cost. 

In Hair Pieces, hair is most powerful not as symbol but as material. We can dye it, cut it or remove it, but it is proof of our embodiment. It is the residue of our physicality. It can’t be abstracted.

Mona Hatoum, Untitled (Hong Kong cage) 2019, Bamboo and hair, 21 x 24 x 18.6 cm. Private collection, Singapore © the artist; Courtesy White Cube, London, England.

Near Untitled (Hong Kong Cage) is Karla Dickens’s Warrior Woman, 2017, where hair sprouts from a metal chastity belt, a riposte to ethnographic displays that once attempted to categorise the bodies of First Nations women. Dickens, a queer Wiradjuri artist, draws on the wilfulness of hair to speak a language of defiance. If Janine Antoni lays bare the burden of gendered labour—how hair can stand in for the pressures that women are subject to—then Dickens gleefully shakes them off. 

In front of S. J Norman’s beguiling Magna Mater, 2020, strands of hair are ensnarled in a series of plastic brushes, so ordinary and intimate. These allude to the hair samples that were once extracted by anthropologists, exhibited in museums. On screens, there are 10 First Nations people who Norman, who is Koorie and Wiradjuri and transmasculine, is in kinship with. Caregivers brush their hair tenderly and the motion is rhythmic, trance-like: hair less the site of control but of the freedom to exist, to feel pleasure, despite it. 

Hair Pieces
Heide Museum of Modern Art

On now—6 October

This article was originally published in the July/August 2024 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Feature Words by Neha Kale