Wearing a giant mask made of human and animal hair, Vivian Chinasa Ezugha slowly circles next to the audience before gradually breaking into dance and shedding the many layers of her mask. In her accompanying programme notes (a word like ‘zine’ would actually be more appropriate for describing the document), she states: “As a material and a bodily matter, hair is simply a coverage. However, when placed in the context of race, identity and gender, hair is more than a material for adornment. It is a language, a symbol and most importantly, hair can conceal.”
This symbolic shedding of hair reminded me of Ruby Tandoh’s words on the unexpected social politics of her recent decision to shave off her bouncy ringlets. As she wrote:
“But it’s never just a damn haircut, really. Least of all when that haircut goes against the grain of the pliant, feminine gender-presentation that’s expected of women.”
Along with linking to gender, sexuality, race, class, cultural heritage and, because of all that, to the way others perceive and react to us, judgements and rules on it are not confined to the hair on the head, but that on the (particularly female) body too. So aside from the huge hair mask covering her face, Ezugha has a long dreadlock descending from under her skirt. It’s never directly referred to or tampered with, it just hangs there sort of daring the viewer to remember that even the hair normally covered with clothes is in some respects public property, influenced by how it might look in the eyes of other people. Daring people also to remember that however much a body is covered up, it still exists and should be acknowledged.
“A boy in my class, who called me ‘Bog Brush Tandoh’ for the two years I knew him, once broke a ruler over my head and observed that one of the shattered halves had disappeared completely. It was generally accepted by the class that the missing part of the ruler was probably still somewhere in my hair.”
The hair in Ezugha’s show is hair that goes against the ideals of, as Tandoh names it, “this shiny, horsey-maned world”. It’s black hair, curly hair, coarse hair. Hair that literally scares people, makes them think that controlling it will work to also control the woman whose head from which it grows. It’s hair that is physically big which in turn reminds us of the idea that diets are designed to make women small literally and metaphorically. Can the same also be said of hair straighteners and all these other sleek-making, streamlining products? They smooth, control and contain the more unruly parts of the body, the edges that are less fixed and more porous.
It’s hair also that reminds the viewer of Medusa, the Gorgon with the head full of snakes. Which in turn leads to Hélène Cixous’s famous essay The Laugh Of The Medusa, a text that counsels women to “Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it.” And also to be heard in the public space, to overcome the fear of speaking and making noise. Ezugha’s show is likewise about the right to be heard, the right to take up space particularly in a culture and a country that has marginalized and repressed black and female voices. It’s also a show that, when it ends with an invitation to dance together, contains real warmth. The invite is quite literally delivered with outstretched arms and is an invite to overcome fear and look again at something people thought they knew. Like Cixous says, “You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.”
Even in its own title, Because of Hair is a performance all about the importance and power of hair, yet in foregrounding the stuff it paradoxically ends up showing how little it means. That the importance given to it is ridiculous and, quite literally in the case of the mask, stops us seeing the person behind it. Like Tandoh’s Elle article concludes:
“Long hair, short hair, no hair, mullet, whatever hair tops my head, whichever path I choose, I’ll still love One Direction and Ally McBeal, I will still bite my nails and tweet too much, I’ll still be mixed race, lanky, sweet-toothed and queer.
I’ll still be me.”
Because Of Hair was performed as part of IBT17 in Bristol. Click here for more details.