This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
"Hair is just hair." Selina Thompson has repeated this six or seven times to 40 assembled strangers before they have to be prompted to turn it into a chorus. "OK, you're not really getting it, are you?" she says, cajoling us to join her in what quickly becomes to feel like part of a ritual. Hair is just hair. Hair is just hair.
But nine years ago in a bathroom in Erdington, Birmingham, her hair wasn't just her hair. When a 16-year-old Thompson looked at herself in the mirror and decided the only solution for her heat-battered afro, damaged after years of exposure to home relaxers, was to buzz the whole lot off, hair wasn't just hair. Nor was hair just hair when her mother sobbed and her dad shut down and refused to engage with his freshly-sheared daughter.
"I was just so confused," she tells me once she's emerged from the tumbleweave of hair-extensions that forms the set of her one-woman show Dark and Lovely—an exploration of how hair informs ideas of race, gender, and beauty. "Watching all these reactions happen around me. I couldn't understand it. My dad's reaction was the most difficult one to deal with, he was just so angry. But I didn't regret it, just because I'd been so deeply unhappy with the state of my hair before."
The "hair is just hair" motif is Thompson's response to some of the reception that early scratches of Dark and Lovely received, mostly from people who couldn't fathom why it was a subject worthy of the kind of ceaseless attention the Leeds-based artist has shown it over the last two years. The answers are condensed into just under two hours of stories gathered from the floors of hair salons in ordinary working class black communities, where the politics of what it means to be a black woman come resoundingly to life.
Thompson began putting her material together by spending time in hair salons, with barbers and black hair in beauty shops in the Chapeltown area of Leeds, finding that the best way to get under the skin of these places was to muck in and help out. "I found that by going in with a notepad and a dictaphone people became stressed-out and didn't want to speak to me. So instead I would just spend the day working there.
"I learned a lot about what it is to be black and British, and the multiplicity of that. I learned about how, for these women, getting their hair done is a moment of community and bonding and almost a spiritual time to be shared between people. But I also learned about times when it is exposing and revealing of deeper and darker tensions within the black community."
The centerpiece of Thomspon's show—a seven-foot-high igloo of hair extensions decked-out with a barber's chair and the odd photo—is where she creates a momentary community that brings her audience right into the bosom of the black lives that she's explored.
The scene inside is unflinching in its purity for the way it generates spontaneous and real conversation between Thompson and her audience. For those familiar with her reference points—the night I attend in Sheffield, black women make up about half of those in the audience—it provokes a hum of knowing laughter and uninvited but welcome interruptions as her stories tap into the fabric of lives led.
For those in the audience who didn't grow up with the unusual pressures that black hair places on its bearer, the tumbleweave is a place where facts and stats—and Thompson has plenty—morph into real people and real experiences. For example, L'Oreal estimates that black women spend six times as much on their hair as any other ethnic group; women in the UK spend £5.2 billion [$7.8 billion] on their hair, 80 percent of which is spent by black women despite the fact they make up fewer than 3 percent of the population.
Some of the stories Thompson tells are domestic and simple. Others are more layered. "There's a story about a little white girl" she tells me, "who comes back from holiday and goes into school with cornrows. She's told that the cornrows aren't suitable for the school environment so her parents write in and ask why.
"They point out that there are black girls who also have their hair in cornrows. The teachers say that the school makes allowances for other people's cultural heritage, but the little girl's hair is too urban so she can't wear them in cornrows. I think about that story a lot. There's so much going on but I can't quite unpick it."
Hair is not just hair; it is more. It's a kind of shorthand for black experiences lived out in a white world. A world where an 18-year-old student has to travel to the other side of a new city just to find the kind of products that her hair needs, passing dozens of chain outlets en route. It's not necessarily a story of victims and oppressors, but one of a young girl who wonders why she has to give up an afternoon to attain basic convenience.
"You can't undo 400 years of damage with a hundred years of trying really hard," says Thompson. "For centuries black hair was 'othered' and talked about really aggressively as if it was fur or wool. The changes we make to it are all about changing the texture to make it look a bit more like Caucasian hair, and that throws up so much to do with race and beauty politics and who is and who isn't beautiful, and the cultural value that goes with that.
"At the other side of all that black hair is still 'other,'" Thompson continues. "It's the complete opposite end of the beauty spectrum."
Even after two hours of careful exploration it's clear that this is a complex issue. To reduce the process that Thompson and millions like her have gone through to "a struggle" seems too bleak, and it denigrates an experience which seems to be at the heart of black female identity.
"I hope that if and when I have kids that I would surround them with lots and lots of imagery of afro-hair that was not just beautiful but also cool." She laughs, and it's the kind of laugh that gets in your ears and warms them up. "But it's hard to know what kids think is cool."