David Christopher Orrell

THE HAIRITAGE PROJECT

America has a history rooted in racism for which Black hair has always been a target, thus shaping the Black American culture of today. Take, for example, the Pencil Test, a practice that took place in the U.S. during chattel slavery and in South Africa during apartheid. The test consisted of a pencil being poked through the hair of a Black student; if the pencil stuck you were the "wrong" kind of Black, but if the pencil fell out that meant you were “passable." This was a filter system meant to keep dark-skinned students with kinky hair from participating in school activities, events, and in some cases, the curriculum altogether. This is just one of the many ways America’s history with racism has shaped how we view Black hair and its many shades and textures today. Black Americans have a unique experience when compared to any other group of American citizens. Although most immigrants traveled to America in the pursuit of happiness or even simply refuge, bringing along with them, their culture and heritage: Black Americans, however, were bound and stripped of their identities before being brought to America in chains. Even after gaining their freedom, a new generation of Black Americans were given very little means to reconnect with their roots or even navigate the social economy of the only country they ever known as home. To understand how we got here, one must first understand the origins of Black hair. 

How often when we talk about getting back to our roots, are we referring to the first chop? Throughout many generations and many cultures in Africa, hair was originally seen as a way to identify particular members and groups within African societies. Hair for some represented spiritual devotion, as “the hair is the most elevated point of your body, which means it is closest to the divine,” Mohammed Mbodj, associate professor of history at Columbia University, and Senegalese native explains. Hairdressers were esteemed members of society; used for more than just grooming, hairdressers were often the pillars of many societal rituals and ceremonies. The process of braiding and twisting was seen as a sacred and communal activity, for it provided an opportunity for the passing down of oral history and tradition as well as important governing information amongst the ruling class. 

Around 1444, European exploration of the West African Coast began and early explorers soon found themselves in a mutually lucrative trading partnership with the many thriving African nations; exchanging textiles, weapons, liquor, gold, ivory, and sometimes a small number of slaves. This cordial trading relationship thrived for almost 100 years. Not only impressed with the goods produced on the West African Coast, Europeans were equally amazed by the uniqueness of the many different hairstyles they found in Africa. Some European explorers, like Jean Barbot (French) and Pieter de Marees (Dutch), went as far as to document popular African hairstyles throughout their travels. It wasn’t until the colonization of the Americas that European explorers felt it necessary to change the terms of their agreement with the West Coast African nations. I bring this up not because we should find value in the Europeans' ability to be amazed by Black people, but rather as evidence by which said Europeans were able to recognize the value in targeting our hair. Understanding the importance of hair to the Africans, the European explorers knew one of the key ways of disrupting social order to capitalize on the Atlantic Slave Trade was to strip Africans of their hair thus stripping them of their identities. Systematic racism has played a heavy role in Black hair's journey in America. Black Americans having to change their appearance to conform to society due to the policing of their bodies by the government is nothing new. 

In fact, in 1786, a set of laws known as The Tignon Laws were introduced in New Orleans, LA: passed by Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miró, The Tignon Laws were designed to prohibit ‘creole women of African descent from displaying excessive attention to their appearance while out in public. The laws instructed that ‘creole women of African descent must wear a tignon (a type of headwrap) or scarf to cover up their hair. This came after the French lost Louisiana as a colony to the Spanish during 1763-1801. The Spanish laws that were put into place during this time provided the enslaved Black population to buy back their freedom. Although this opportunity was not afforded to the entire enslaved population, many Blacks were able to buy their way out of slavery, leading to the free Black population growing to 1500, enabling them to amass wealth and establish power within society. Free women of African descent, during this period, experimented with style and fashion, often dressing their hair in updos adorned with feathers and jewels. Their decorative hairstyles were so elaborate and regal that they exuded the image of the aristocracy and allowed these women, particularly light-skinned and mixed-race Blacks, to navigate high society and produce families with white men. This obviously posed a threat to the social order in Louisiana. Historian Virginia M. Gould notes in her book, The Devil's Lane: Sex & Race in the Early South, that the governor was hoping that it would control women "who had become too light-skinned or who dressed too elegantly, 

or who competed too freely with white women for status and thus threatened the social order.” In Lisa Ze Winters’ book, The Mulatta Concubine: Terror, Intimacy, Freedom, and Desire in the Black Transatlantic, Winters notes, "scholars have also examined how the tignon bando and sumptuary laws across the Americas like it were not so much about the ostentatious vanity of free women of color but rather about the problem of maintaining the racial economy of slavery." Thus, the Tignon Laws were put into place.

This project was inspired by J.D. Waiheke Okhai Ojeikere and his photographic exploration of unique hairstyles found throughout Africa. The Black community has drawn influence from across the diaspora, mixing traditional African hairstyles with modern American hairstyles, creating an expression of art and cultural pride. I set out to show all the reasons why Black hair is not just “hair," pulling from cultural references, including historical events, motifs, and symbols, to produce a series of thematic shoots, including a short film titled Taji, featuring uniquely braided hairstyles found throughout the African diaspora, and a photo essay featuring Black professionals and artists working with Black hair. 

In my personal growth as an artist and a Black man in America, I often find myself learning about things I feel as though I should've known. When I focused my work on Black hair, the subject matter became a path to questions like, "Why am I here?" and "Where do I come from?" This informed my creative direction with the project. As stated before, I knew I wanted to share all the reasons why Black hair wasn't just hair but also highlight the cultural significance behind how we express ourselves through how we look and how that has evolved. I believe there's a phenomenon that occurs when Black Americans, whether through social media, TV, or in person, realize there are near identical sayings, practices, and objects that connect us through our family ties; a feeling I can only describe as finding a long lost cousin. For example, how every Black grandmother keeps candy in her purse as if exclusively for her grandchildren; or superstitions like refraining from doing laundry on New Year's Day; or the very existence of soul food, which is a byproduct of the scraps our enslaved ancestors were served, by their oppressors. I call this a phenomenon because the feeling experienced during this realization is sudden, and that feeling is a mixture of belonging and joy. However, the feeling is fleeting and hard to grasp for longer than that moment. I believe that's because of how, as a people, we've been systematically fractured; creating blindspots in our history and culture that later generations are left to rediscover on their own. A result of Black Americans being policed from how we look to how we come together. For me, there's a sense of joy and pride that comes with seeing past those blindspots and learning that we, as Black Americans, have a culture that is rooted in our very existence-- in our lineage.

Growing up, my grandmother would often sit with me as we flipped through family albums, and she would tell me stories describing relatives long gone, stories of how my father grew up with my aunts and uncles, and seeing the places our family has been. One story, in particular, that she shared with me was how two of my aunts put themselves through school braiding hair on campus and how every weekend they would turn their dorm rooms into salons. Growing up in my grandmother's house, it was routine to walk into my grandmother's room with hair draped everywhere while the Knicks vs whatever team played on the TV, pizza from Bruno's on Springfield Ave sitting on the dresser, my grandmother shouting "Hercules!" at every point gained by her beloved Knicks. All the while discussing family matters, a scene not dissimilar to how our ancestors gathered around the master hairdressers in their communities.

 In my pursuit to document Black creatives and entrepreneurs working within the hair industry, something they all had in common was that they all felt as though the act of working with hair was sacred; their years of routine seemed almost ritualistic as they prepped their stations and made their motions as they begin to work. As they shared their stories and experience working with Black hair in their fields, I learned that Mr. Lee, a barber who has cut three generations of my family’s hair, from my grandfather to my dad  to me, has been cutting hair his whole life. He started working in his father's shop at 14 years old in Atlanta, Georgia, during the 1960s and now owns his own shop called Lee’s Barbershop in East Orange, NJ, where he also met his late wife of 20 years. Gary, who is originally from Jamaica, moved to America in pursuit of the American dream. With his Barbershop, Gary not only became a master barber in his community, but he was also able to provide for his family. Jazz, on the other hand, has been braiding hair for as long as she can remember. Her artistry speaks for itself, as all the braided work present on this page was done by her hands. Lastly, Adebunmi's work is an act of self-preservation. Using organic materials like hair donated by family, friends, and strangers who believe in her art; or soil cultivated from the land her ancestors once toiled under oppression, Bunmi creates a carbon record of our people's existence and experiences.

I believe this project is important because race-based hair discrimination still exists, in which the denial of employment and educational opportunities can occur because of hair texture or protective hairstyles (including braids, locs, twists, or Bantu knots). White society often fails to realize that hair is a form of expression, identity, and a connection to heritage, especially in the Black community. This is why we’ve seen prominent riffs within the Black community, such as colorism, texturism, and classicism. In the aftermath of American slavery, we see prominent figures such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, who often debated their views on what the aesthetic of the modern negro should be going forward in white society. Du Bios, in particular, introduced the concept of the “double-consciousness,” as he argued that there are two competing identities within every Black American, seeing oneself as both an American and a Black person living in a white-centric America. Black people, especially Black women, face pressure to conform to European standards everyday, whether it’s the process of young Black girls straightening their naturally coily, and curly hair through the use of chemicals or a hot comb; or young Black boys being vilified as thugs because they wear braids, locs, or durags. As a result, Black Americans have gone through many identities throughout history as it concerned their physical appearance. For it can mean the difference between reward and discipline, employment and unemployment, or far too often, life and death. It is here, through the policing of Black bodies and the Black image, that we see Black Americans’ resilience and influence over American culture.

Taji

A Short Film

TAJI [tah-jee] (n)- a male given name: from a Swahili word meaning “crown.”

The Taji short film follows the story of a young boy named Taj, who finds himself on a fantastic journey through Black hair culture. At its core, the film is a meditation on lineage and tradition and how a people's identity evolves over the course of centuries. The film is meant to serve as a cinematic summary of the project; Taj represents our inner selves as we reconnect with our past through hair. 


Collaborators

Director/Writer. David Orrell Producers. David Orrell, Erby Beauvil, Christopher Hall, Associate Producer. Nikki Villafane, Camera. David Orrell, Christopher Hall, Editors. Christopher Hall, David Orrell, Composer. Jordan Ali Boucicaut, Production Asst. Cheyenne Sealey, Shyanne Palacois, Kristian Chester, Chantele Sterling 

Hair. Jasmine Larmond, Alana Bond, Makeup. Ashley Allen, Set Design. Brianna Sealey, Wardrobe. David Orrell, Simone Thompson(Beach Scene/Cottage Scene) Zunyda Watson (Beach Scene) Cast. Jaxson Gilyard, Simone Thompson, Kelley Tate, Chantele Sterling, 

 Cast Cont. AJ Destiné, Joseph Taylor, Imani Hamlet-Stafford, India Muhammad, Jasmine Larmond, Erby Beauvil, Kristian Chester, Myles Valentine, Jozif Owens, David Orrell, Heather Jackson , Andrea Cozier, Reis Chester, Kassey Chester, Gina Sturdivant, Terence McNealy, Zunyda Watson,  Destini Craig

Models. Hajara Abubakar, Esther Vilmont, Shamika Erasme, Reis Chester, Zoe Jimenez, Jeannide Vincent, Chantele Sterling, Kyle Maurice, Cyrene Renee, Nyoka Myers, Kristian Chester, Alana Bond, Kassey Chester, Valerie Pugh, Michelle Lantigua, Lee Shingles, Gary Johnson

Spring

Exhibition

2024

The Hairitage Project exhibition will open to the public this Spring at the historic Krueger-Scott Mansion. The exhibition will educate people on why Black hair is not just “hair” and feature the artists and collaborators who founded the project. The mansion's deep connection to the local community makes this exhibition immensely relevant. As a community, we'll get to explore the rich history of the mansion and celebrate the Hairitage Project's contribution to the art community of Newark.

The Krueger-Scott Mansion was deemed the greatest mansion ever built in Newark. It was built in 1888 by Gottfried Ephraim Krueger, owner of the Krueger brewery, for $250,000. After World War I, the Krueger family moved out of the mansion, and it was later sold to a construction company and then the Scottish Rite Masons. In 1958, the mansion was purchased by Madame Louise Scott, Newark's first Black woman millionaire and owner of a Black women's beauty company. Madame Scott maintained the house as her residence and the headquarters of several businesses, including the Scott College of Beauty Culture. However, ownership of the mansion fell to the City of Newark in 1982, and the mansion sat vacant for over two decades. Today, the mansion has been rehabilitated by its new owners, Makerhoods Urban Renewal, reinvigorating the previous owners' entrepreneurial spirit.


Reception

Exhibition History

2023- Hairitage, Curated by Favour Ritaro, Apexart, New York, NY

2023 - Cross Cultural Perspectives, Curated by Adrienne Wheeler, Newark Arts, Newark, NJ

2023- Club Gallery, Curated by Ianko Joseph, NCS Solutions & Photodom NYC, New York, NY

2023- Reflection, Curated by LaQuann Dawson & Michael DajourMOBI NYC, New York, NY

Grants

2023-  The City of Newark, Division of Arts and Cultural Affairs, Creative Catalyst Grant.

2022- Project for Empty Space, Newark Artist Accelerator Grant.

Panels

2022 – UNFCU's Talk About IT: Winter ’22 Panelist, New York, NY, February 25.

2022 – Paul Robeson Galleries’ Artist Talk: Spring ’22 Panelist, Newark, NJ, March 24.


References

TV

  • Wyatt, D., & Bowserr, Y. L. (1995, December 8). Living Single. A hair-razing experience . broadcast, Burbank, California.

BOOKS

  • Byrd, A. D., & Tharps, L. L. (2002). Hair story: Untangling the roots of black hair in America. St. Martin's Griffin.
  • Mills, Q. T. (2017). Cutting along the color line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Bristol, D. W. (2015). Knights of the razor: Black barbers in slavery and freedom. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Clinton, C., & Gillespie, M. (1997). The devil’s lane: Sex and race in the early South (1st ed.). Oxford University Press. 

MOVIES

  • American Playhouse Theatrical Films, in association with WMG, present a Geechee Girls production ; produced, written, and directed by Julie Dash. (2000). Daughters of the Dust. New York, N.Y. 

ORGANIZATIONS

  • The Crown Act
  • NAACP
  • Alliance for Boys and Men of Color
  • Kamoinge Inc.

NEWS ARTICLES

GOVERNMENT

  • Senate Judiciary, Booker, N.J. [Bill], The CROWN Act of 2021 (117AD)

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