New Visions: Nakeya Brown’s Beautification of Black Hair

by Tania L. Balan-Gaubert

As a young woman living in Pennsylvania, Nakeya Janice Brown first fell in love with photography while capturing her rural surroundings. That love deepened when she moved to Brooklyn for a summer. She shifted from taking photos of nature to documenting black social spaces. Between 18 and 24 years old, Brown photographed black life in Brooklyn, Newark, and New Orleans.

Today Brown is an emerging New Jersey-based artist. Her work examines representations of black womanhood and beauty, with a special focus on hair. This past June she exhibited work at a group show in Washington D.C., If We Came From Nowhere Here, Why Can’t We Go Somewhere There? presented by the photography collective for women of African descent, Mambu Badu. Brown also recently released prints with AADAT, an innovative arts platform that showcases artists of Africa and its Diaspora across several mediums.

The creative foundation for Brown’s most recent series came when Brown was 24 after she gave birth to her daughter Mia. Where she previously had plenty of time and freedom to get up and go shoot, stepping into the role of motherhood changed much of Brown’s approach to her work. “I just started brainstorming ideas about how she will be perceived in society as a black woman. Motherhood created a new way for me to think about my photography.”

She’s since concentrated her vision on Black women and their hair—inspired by her daughter’s birth—and the work is garnering much attention.

“The Refutation of ‘Good’ Hair,” Brown’s first project, stages portraits of several women eating Kanekalon synthetic hair. Each woman dons a different hairstyle and seems to convey a different visceral relationship to the hair in her hands and mouth. Juxtaposed with these photographs are images of hair wrapped around a fork next to a knife, and hair placed near a plate of traditionally cooked soul food.

The collection invites you to think about hair for its emotional value—as something to be consumed, that can perhaps also nurture or debilitate the spirit. In a sense, it evokes the kind of emotional questioning common among black women that often comes when considering one’s hair care choices, but with the raw symbolic pairing of food. It brings up questions like: What’s feeding me? Am I satiated by my natural coils, my hair low, or my hair ‘laid’? How does my relationship with my hair nurture my relationship with myself or my beauty?

In effect, “The Refutation of Good Hair” does not take a moral stance on valuing natural hair over synthetic. Instead it aims to champion black women’s agency in their hairstyling choices.

“I’m talking about how difficult is it to be a woman of color and be accepted as beautiful in terms of our hair… It’s less about a divisive body of work, where I’m criticizing hair that’s a certain way. It’s more or less about embracing that hair comes in all textures and curl patterns and can be worn in any way. Black hair is a multiplicity of things.”

Couched within the struggle to recognize black women’s beauty is also the struggle for black women to value their own self-worth. Today’s commercial successes and the rise in availability of hair products, tools, and how-to tutorials via Youtube and elsewhere, only serves to illuminate more of that self-love journey within black women’s hair care practices.

In her second collection, “if nostalgia were colored brown,” Brown succeeds in recreating a space for those practices where the presence of the black body is intentionally absent, and yet remains “felt.” The series stirs you to visualize the intimacy between a woman and her hair. “If nostalgia were colored brown” thereby encapsulates not only a moment, but unveils the relationship between a woman’s private space and the tools used for her beautification.

Set against pastel colored backgrounds, a table reminiscent of a vanity desk sits with hair tools and old vinyls of singers like Denise Williams, Natalie Cole, and Diana Ross. These objects signify a distinctly black feminine presence and experience. A sense of old school glamour and peacefulness comes forth in the photographs.

Brown points out that each object was strategically chosen for its story.

“Objects tell stories as much as a physical body can.”

Brown is currently working on a new series.The project continues her unveiling of private practices by capturing the art of hair rituals. So far it includes the depiction of a young woman sealing her hair in hot water, a hand setting fire to a braid; a woman posed with her back to the viewer with hands raised to her hair bonnet; and the art of hair drying on a clothesline. These images are resonating with many women.

“As black women, there are these processes that we do, sort of in secrecy and behind doors. I wanted to bring that aspect of our lives into a space, [so] that it can be talked about and it can be looked at.”
Nakeya Brown’s projects are a nod to broadening how black women and others visualize black womanhood. She offers us a means to look upon black women’s beauty with respectful curiosity, while also reflecting on our shared experiences as black women. Finally, Brown reminds us that what we do for our hair and how we do it is inherently and artfully beautiful.

In the spring, Brown will attend George Washington University to pursue her M.F.A. in photography. You can follow her work via her website and Instagram @nakeyab.

Tania L. Balan-Gaubert is a Haitian American native of Chicago. She received her master’s degree in African American Studies from Columbia University and currently resides in Brooklyn. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @tanialaure.