The Power of Objects

Origins of the Afro Combs, 2 July - 3 November, at Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK.

Installation View 'My Hair: Black Hair Culture, Style and Politic' at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 2013. Courtesy of Fitzwilliam Museum.
Installation View 'My Hair: Black Hair Culture, Style and Politic' at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 2013. Courtesy of Fitzwilliam Museum.

The hair comb has always been a strong symbol in African societies, representing status, group affiliation or even religious beliefs. The exhibition Origins Of The Afro Combs – 6000 Years Of Culture, Politics And Identity curated by Sally-Ann Ashton, and presented simultaneously at the Fitzwilliam Museum and at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in Cambridge, offers the viewer a unique and insightful voyage through the African Comb’s history in society starting 6000 years ago to nowadays. It traces the meaning of this object in the African continent as well as also throughout the African Diaspora's communities, namely in the Americas, Britain or Caribbeans.

The nucleus presented at Fitzwilliam Museum offers a chronological contextualization of the comb, starting in the earliest period in Egypt (Kemet), where most of the combs found were decorated with animal motifs and in some exceptional cases with human figures, which might represent in some cases a god, as the one from the New Kingdom (Egypt), a rare and finest comb that represents Tawaret the goodness. One of the most interesting dialogues presented, is the juxtaposition of two combs from two ends of a 5000 years timeline, a plastic comb designed by Antonio’s Inc. from the seventies, and a hair comb made of bone from the Upper Egypt Dynasty. Both enclose the same iconic meaning, the first representing the ethos of Civil Rights Movement showing a clenched fist and a peace sign, and the second ornamented with a par of bull’s horns, both symbols of power and status within the society that they belonged to.

Besides the several combs’ objects that we can find in this exhibition, from several countries and chronological periods, we can also appreciate several small sculptures from Nigeria, from the 12th Century (CE), representing gods and/or fertility figures showing a multiplicity of hairstyles, like Shango, the God of Thunder. Also, a slideshow projection presents photographs of African and Caribbean hair styling, taken between 1908 and 2013. These images illustrate not only the oppressive colonial period where African people are portrayed as exotic but also offers, through photographs taken by community members or professional photographers, a more closer and contemporary perspective of the hairstyles’ diversity.

In the last exhibition space at Fitzwilliam Museum, not only are disclosed the origins of the Afro comb in the Colonial Period and in the African Diaspora, but also the origins and importance of the ‘Afro’ hairstyle. This later emerged in 1950’s and gained tremendously visibility when artists like Miriam Makeba or Nina Simone started to wear those publically, using it as symbol of pride of their cultural identity. Afterwards with the Black Civil Rights and with the Black Power Movement, the ‘Afro’ hairstyle became widely popular within the African Diaspora communities, expressing the concept of ‘Black is Beautiful’. During this period, a series of combo designs were developed, the most iconic one clenched a fist, a gesture that represents the Black Power Salute.

The history of Jamaica’s Accompong Maroons is also recounted through ten aluminium combs, made by Russell Newell in 2013. The term ‘Maroon’ comes from the Spanish cimarrón, which is one of the many pejorative words used by Europeans to label African people. In this installation, Newell presents the story of a rebel group from Accompong in West Africa, who had managed to escape from the British who were arriving in Jamaica, and over more than 80 years fought the Colonial British power - their struggle culminating in their independence in 1738.

The second part presented at Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology can be seen as a huge installation where the story is brought to the present days, by the artwork of artist and writer Michael McMillian. The installation My Hair: Black Hair Culture, Style and Politics, recreates three hairdresser shops in real scale: a cottage salon, a barbershop and a hairdressing Salon. The artist tries to illustrate the development of the global black industry, the politicizing, as well as the popularization of Afros and Dreadlocks.
This is an exhibition that not only unveils us the origins of the Afro Comb and the relevance of this object in the twenty-century political history but also the way hairstyles have also became a symbol of African cultural identity.

*Origins of the Afro Combs - 6000 years of Culture, politics and Identity
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Fitzwilliam Museum
Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology
Cambridge, UK
Curated by Sally-Ann Ashton
www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk