black hair industry

The artist Tasha Dougé with hold her work “This Land is OUR Land,” a flag made out of hair. Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Natural. Curly. Straight. Processed. Silkener. Dreads. Good hair. Nappy hair. Wigs. Today we’re exploring the world of hair, a billion-dollar industry.   

For all its complexities, hair is an integral element in the New York-based artist Tasha Dougé’s work “This Land is OUR Land.” We spoke with her about the piece, and the intersection between history, art, hair, and identity. (The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.)  

What inspired you to create “This Land”?  

The inspiration came from the phrase “Make America Great Again.” O.K., so we’re going to make America great…When was it great? Who made it great? Who was it great for? When you answer these questions, you’ll have a slew of answers. When I think about this nation as a whole, it wouldn’t be what it is now without the contributions of enslaved Africans. I wanted to explore how I could convey the story of slaves in a way that hasn’t been done before. Without much thought, the image of the American flag came to mind. And then I thought: “Oh, I’m going to make the American flag with black hair.” And then I wanted to replace the stars with cotton.  

Describe the creative process.  

The hair I used was synthetic braiding hair in different shades (black, dark brown, brown, gray) that I purchased online. There were times that I was exhausted, because I work 9 to 5. She was definitely a task as she is 5 feet by 3 feet. I thought to myself that I could have walked away at any given point because no one knows she is in existence, but “no” kept resounding in my head, because my ancestors didn’t give up. And their pain was nowhere near my pain. So if I’m going to pay homage to my ancestors, I need to do right by them and complete this task. I reference her, Justice, as my blessed burden to carry. When you’re speaking truth that people don’t want to hear, that can be burdensome.  

I used a braiding technique of elongating the braid without creating a new braid. It was a technique that I had watched for years of getting my own hair braided in African hair shops. Once I was done with all the strands, some 15 feet long, I then stitched them to chicken wire.  

The final touch was sewing on the balls of cotton instead of stars. I wanted every element of that flag to have some type of representation: The brown stripes speak to the varying spectrum of color we are (light-skinned slaves were in the house and darker slaves were in the field); and we are all interwoven in that trauma of skin tone; the gray represents the years of oppression and it’s ongoing; the black box represents the black experience exclusive to this country. There is something very unique about the experience of black people in America. Cotton is really what spearheaded slavery in the first place.  

What is the takeaway?  

I want people to recognize and acknowledge the unquestionable contributions of my – better yet – our ancestors to this country. I want people to delve into the trauma of being unrepresented, ignored and invisible. I want people to feel pride, shame, loss, gratitude, remorse, respect and everything else there is to feel. I want people to see the resilient nature of the ancestors and their descendants because we are still slaves, just in a different rite. I want people to see the amount of labor and the level of commitment that is needed when striving for justice.  And there are so many more layers to explore because she speaks to many facets of our existence and exploitation.  

What does hair mean in the African-American community, and how do you think other communities view our hair?  

My answer for this one is far too long to condense the layers into a few sentences.  I can say this for now: after people kept asking me why I chose hair, it made me realize how black people propel the hair industry.  Either we subscribe to the European aesthetic and spend all our money there, or we try to buy African hair and products from shops in our communities, but owned by people outside of our race.  Either way, the money never funnels back into the black community. There is also the issue of cultural misappropriation. One word…Kardashians.