April 23, 2013

Untangling Roots of Identity

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The presentation of hair carries more weight in our society — and our daily routines — than some of us would like to admit. Hair: Untangling Roots of Identity, which opened last Saturday at the Johnson under the curation of the History of Art Majors’ Society, sparks awareness and ignites conversation on the role of hair in cultures around the world. The exhibit, which opened Saturday at the Johnson, examines hair as an aspect of both primitive and cosmopolitan lifestyles, tackling its role in defining gender, race and religion through time with pieces ranging from the 15th to the 21st century.

The History of Art Majors’ Society, which is comprised solely of undergraduates, curates a show at the Johnson each spring. After deciding last spring to host an exhibit that would examine hair and its role in society, the Society has spent its weekly meetings selecting pieces for the show. Using ten pieces as a framework for its selections, the Society has narrowed down a pool of nearly 200 member-suggested works to create Hair. Most of the pieces are from the permanent collection of the Johnson, with several other pieces contributed by Cornell professors and other New York museums.“This is one of the biggest shows that we’ve done and it’s also the most geographically, chronologically and materially diverse show that we’ve ever done,” says Kathryn Kremnitzer, president of the History of Art Majors’ Society. Hair is also the society’s first exhibition to display sculpture and video work.

Hair will remain on display at the Johnson until July 14th. This week, the History of Art Major’s Society has organized several events to complement the exhibition and highlight particular themes of Hair. This Thursday, Iona Diamond, artist of the exhibition’s advertisement, will be speaking on the influence of hair in her work and personal life. Saturday, the Society will host a faculty symposium about the significance of hair from an anthropological, historical and personal perspective. A screening of Chris Rock’s film Good Hair (2009) will follow the symposium.

Hair draws from a large range of mediums, varying from needlepoint to sculpture, etchings to film. Yet, while a variety of mediums are represented, Hair contains a large proportion of etchings and prints that seem to overpower the exhibit. Kremnitzer attributes the strong presence of etchings to the large print collection of the Johnson and their inherently detailed depictions of hair. As Kremnitzer explained,  “The reason why the etchings were so great for us is because every hair is delineated by the artist.”

While the goal of the exhibit was to create a dialogue on hair and its role in shaping identities, many pieces created interesting visual interpretations of hair without any obvious significance. A painting of Charlie Chaplin with a moustache as the sole facial feature and Ellen Gallagher’s “Bouffant Pride,” a collage that implants googly eyes into an illustrated Afro, for example, boldly voice the way our perception of individuals hinges on hair. However, the significance of hair to several pieces of Hair was undoubtedly stretched, relying on the accompanying statement to forge a link. The pieces in which emphasis on hair was subtle — portraits that simply accentuated the subject’s hair — made the exhibit’s message less obvious or redundant, but were weak in communicating the exhibit’s themes.

The exhibition is divided into three subsections, examining hair from the perspectives of religion, ethnicity and gender. In terms of religion, the exhibit examines many artists’ manipulation of hair to selectively revere or humanize, drawing on legends of hair — such as the depiction of the Ganges river flowing from the head of Shiva. The exhibit challenges society’s fixation on the racial associations of hair and its fundamental role in racial stereotypes.  The exhibit also shows hair’s power to feminize and masculinize — even to comical dimensions, as in the extravagant up-do of the subject in a Henri Daumier illustration.

The exhibit certainly possesses a unique sense of artistry: One particular section juxtaposes several vibrant watercolors of Japanese women’s hairstyles with late Victorian daguerreotypes of thick-bearded models. Unified in their reflection of hair in fashion, the intermingling of these disparate elements demonstrated the syntax of curators in crafting a powerful message through hair. “In the whole show we wanted to put things in conversation so that we have Asian works in dialogue with Western works, things from the 15th century in dialogue with things that were made five years ago. We were very interested in those intersections and the way that hair can be universal but also incredibly particular,” Kremnitzer says. Without a doubt, Hair links many cultures and generations by highlighting the timeless significance of hair.

Original Author: Madeline Salinas