It almost sounds like the opening line to a joke: A young black woman takes a bunch of middle-aged white women who she doesn’t know in Woodstock, N.Y., to a black salon, gives them a new “black” hairdo, and then takes their portrait.
“Corporate America is intimidating, but my hope to succeed allows it to also be promising. I feel like I will have to fight twice as hard to exceed my competition for respect and wage.” — Sabrina, 23, Arkansas.
“I join the band of minority women in corporate America as a faceless heroine. I believe corporate has lost its servitude for humanity and I feel obligated to supply it. I noticed that big-name corporations are making an effort to equal the playing field by hiring minority and female leaders … but it’s an indication that there are highly skilled players on the bench ready to be called into play.” — Katrina, seated, 23, Arkansas.
For a photo series entitled “Can I Touch It?” Beal approached white women in their forties – some colleagues, others strangers – and gave them a hairstyle typically seen on black women. After the makeover, the revamped women posed in corporate portraits, suits and all, donning their corn rows, braids and finger curls. The resulting images offer a striking juxtaposition of the women’s demure button-ups and pearls and their intricate, seemingly out-of-place coifs.
[MORE PHOTOS] During a five-week residency at the Center for Photography at Woodstock in New York, photographer Endia Beal, a young black woman, took a group of middle-aged white women to a black hair salon and captured the results with formal, corporate-style portraits. The project, “Can I Touch It?” explores gender, race, and generational gaps in the corporate environment.
Endia Beal earned her BFA from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and an MFA from Yale University. Her conversation with ABOUT-FACE has been edited.
fts Can I Touch It?
A-F: My first exposure to your work was your series ‘Can I Touch It’, which gained wide recognition all over the web. How did it feel to see how people responded to this work?EB: When creating the work, my ultimate goal was to begin a conversation about minority women within the corporate space. My goals were exceeded by the conversations that took place throughout social media, websites, blogs, etc. I received messages from all over the world from women and men giving their testimonies in regard to conforming and having to conform to a certain look within corporate environments. As artists, our work is usually displayed in the gallery or institution, but my first exhibit was online. I reached more people than I could have ever reached in a space designated for art.
A-F:This particular series for obvious reasons, including how you’ve discussed in recent interviews, has a comedic tone about it, but we know about the more serious personal and political associations to black women’s hair. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you feel like you learned or gained from doing this work?EB: Initially I did a project about my own experience as a minority woman in the corporate space. I was a spectacle—an ‘other’. I wanted to insert myself into the conversation and have discussion about the"norm". I thought these women would not understand how if feels to be the other in this environment. I was wrong. These women not only understood, but shared their own experiences. In particular, one woman named Desiree had to change her name for her job. Another woman had to have someone else represent her business because of how she looked. The idea of conformity transcends race, gender…
A-F: How do you feel your work as an artist adds to the larger discourse of identity?EB: As minority artists, there are so many stories that haven’t been told. If I can tell a few, even based my experiences, I have done something. We need to get a full view, to give a voice to these invisible and unseen narratives. These specific and personal stories are universal.
fts Can I Touch It?
A-F:What makes a successful portrait to you?EB: When you are able to capture the personality or energy of the person—if it can be on its own and provoke contemplation, outside of a larger series, that is when it is successful. A portrait that has mystery, that provokes thought and questions.
This is interesting when you consider that many “Black” hairstyles are considered “unprofessional” for a corporate workplace. The difference is that the participants were happy to experience something new and did not have to experience the discrimination or exoticizing that happens to women with hairstyles viewed as “Black” in a corporate setting. If they had gone back to work with these hairstyles or had to ride public transportation like this, then I’d like to hear more about it.