Major Design Project1 – Black Hair Politics

The Weighting Aisle:

Dismantling structures of power in the check-out aisle

In the piece, ‘Is it fake? Black Women’s Hair as Spectacle and Spectacular’ (1995), author Deborah Grayson states, ‘Hairstyle has become a battleground where issues related to the politics of personal appearance and beauty are being fought out.’ Further elaborating that, ‘due to mixed breeds, when skin colour fails to racially define, the characteristic that does not fail, is hair texture and colour’.

This even relates to the 15th century slavery times where, according to Cheryl Thompson in ‘Black Women and Identity: What does hair have to do with it?’, there was a clear association of functionality between hair and the space that black slaves occupied. Where the house nigger had to dress their hair similarly to their slave owner, different from the field nigger.

My study’s overarching aim is about inverting power associated to image, and in particular, hair’s contribution to image based standards. Aiming to render the powerful, powerless to the point of empathy; and the powerless, powerful to a point of freedom. A trade space. Embodying five main spatial experiences that would engage the trading of reactions as a commodity.

The project sought to speculate a space of perceived normality around black hair, in which power is taken by those with black hair through the use of key spatial experiences manifesting on the site of the check -out aisle.


Act 6.1: Deal

In my subjective enquiry, the deal I identified, was in the trade-in of autonomy around identity in return for one that is classified as “right” or “appropriate”. And this appropriateness is done so along with its association to space. Personally, work, school and the mall. Explored as the journey of my hair through space, documented using tweets and concluded with my expressive understanding of the day.

Act 6.2: Grounding

This lead to a spatial enquiry of typical spaces that are seen as hair zones, tied with social perceptions and a huge economy. Conducting hair questionnaires, analysing hairpiece prices to hairdressing time and subjective street experience.

Act 6.3: Manipulation

I then explored a societal enquiry of racial biasedness of black hair.

Using the ladies in my age group of 18-30, also known as provisional adults, according to Gail Sheehy, my study investigated where the pressure of upholding our racially biased standards of beauty, come from.

And so, using SABC Media House as an image standards production house to track this demographic, it was established that most of them exist within the LSM 1-6 category, according to SABC data. As students and working professionals with controlled access to internet and still reliant on TV as a source of visual stimulation.

As a first iteration, I mapped a day’s worth of viewing SABC TV channels, indicating the volume of varying types of hair that was seen, in the following categories: advertisements, soapies, news and primetime slot. I mapped in this way in order to establish a bases for its comparative physical space. For instance, advertisements or digital space of consumerism. I then compared to a mall or a physical space of consumerism. The exploration then led to a narrowing down of a space of interest to, in this case, a consumerist space with a high percentage of my focus demographic. So the physical mapping of the print media, led to a focus on the check-out of a store; as a space with image on constant display, through its array of magazine walls.

Act 6.4: Negotiation

Check-out aisles intrigue for a number of reasons. It is a compulsory space. It is a space that literally allows the consumer to check-out and consumptive decisions are less deliberate and driven by emotion. Also, located in the context of a mall, it is a vital, enterprise capital trade space.

And thus, aiming to explore this impulsive, emotive and intense means of cohersing, I looked at manipulating 3 architectural components of the aisle:

  • The floor – as an expression of comfort and status
  • The wall – as a guide to where you go, wait and what you look at.
  • The ceiling – as the controller. The element that exists without question, like our image standards

The 5 characters I identified to exploit were: The Provoker – Me. A grim reaper like character who holds decisive authority over the space. The Enrager – The black girl disrespecting white hair by stepping on it. The humour – The white woman in the white hair quarantine container, obliviously assuming nothing strange of the changed space. The Vulnerable – The white woman with dreadlocks crying, as a way in which vulnerability acts out. The Threat – The white woman hanging from the ceiling, in the background, as an act of defiance to the space.


Spatial proposition of my check-out aisle

And taking a seductive imagery approach, I tried to communicate the waiting experiences of 5 scenes and their emotive spatial experiences, using the 5 characters of emotion expression I identified, that speak to the desired reactions of the white women, in their queue; I wished to put on display.

Ultimately, a theatrical unpacking of the unconscious image weighted and dictating aisle where white women go through main spaces that exaggerate the experience of waiting in an aisle, with the constant in-between threat of overarching helplessness. A discriminatory spatial experience based on hair.


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