Artist explores issues of race, culture and identity

Selina Thompson
Selina Thompson
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Artist Selina Thompson has created an installation and performance piece about hair – she tells Yvette Huddleston about the project.

“What I find really interesting about afro hair is the texture, shape and colour,” says artist Selina Thompson whose installation and performance piece Dark and Lovely opens at East Street Arts’ Union 105 gallery in Chapeltown next week. “It is one of the most distinctive things about being black and I wanted to explore what that told us about being black.”

Originally from Birmingham, Thompson has been living in Beeston in Leeds for the past two years. “It was important to me that the project fit geographically within Chapeltown. For me what I associate Chapeltown with is hair – on the Chapeltown Road there are four of five black hair products shops and hairdressers – so since August I have camped out in hairdressers and barbers shops, making tea, learning how to weave hair and relax hair and talking to people.”

Thompson also tapped into her own personal experiences, speaking to family and friends about their hair stories – and she made some interesting discoveries. “It was quite an emotional thing,” she says. “I really underestimated just how much time my mum spent on my hair and the braiding process. It would take her four hours to take the braids out, then the next day she would have to plait it back up. I had eight hours of undivided attention from my mum.” She heard similar stories from others she spoke to in Leeds. “One girl told me how three of her cousins would come round to put her braids in and I heard another story from a young boy in Chapeltown who has a huge afro and he goes round to his grandmother, who does his hair for him, every day. These are really beautiful stories – that undivided time with the family and the passing down of knowledge.” Dark and Lovely features an installation in which a giant hair ball or ‘tumble weave’, made from weaves and extensions, hides a barber’s chair in the centre of the gallery. Visitors are encouraged to touch it, while on the walls of the room are objects and mementoes from Thompson’s family home. Thompson will also give daily performances using recorded conversations, music, written text and the hair ball itself in which she explores the social and cultural debate surrounding afro hair and how it contributes to our understanding of black identity. “It is really important to look at beauty standards and the politics of identity and race,” she says. “An afro in the 60s and 70s was a political statement – there was this idea that black hair looked messy and wasn’t respectable. I want to look at how we can reimagine those connotations.” During the performance, the hair ball – which Thompson describes as “something a bit gross” – is transformed into a thing of beauty. “Flowers grow out of the hair and fruit comes out of it,” she explains. “With this piece, because it is so loaded and complicated, I think it is important to make a strong visual image so that people can project what they want onto it.”