“Culture of Hair” photo exhibit in Denver shows how hair helps us discover ourselves

A lot gets said about hair in our culture: black hair, blonde, gray, red, braided, short, flowing, neon or no hair at all. We love to parse the social meanings of styles and colors and decipher what hair says about who occupies and owns the diverse society we all share.

But hair is a personal thing, really. Sure, the way we wear it can send a message to the world, but the world doesn’t wake up with our hair and go to bed with it at night. It doesn’t see our hair in the bathroom mirror when we brush our teeth, feel its texture when we scratch our scalp or hold it out of our eyes and mouth on windy days.

Hair doesn’t define us to others nearly as much as it helps us work out who we are with ourselves, to become the people we want to spend the rest of our lives with. That is the takeaway from “Culture of Hair,” the exhibition currently at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center.

The show, curated by Samantha Johnston, features dozens of photos from five different artists, and nearly every one of them is a portrait of an individual person. Quiet, intimate, up close, revealing. The subjects are alone with their hair, reflecting less on its politics — though, there is some of that — and more on how it feels to wear it.

In that way, the women flaunting their locks in Nancy Grace Horton’s “Becoming Grey” series use their hair to accept their maturity and appreciate the grace and wisdom that comes with age. The photographer created portraits of numerous women and recorded them telling their stories, and this exhibition features four of her pigment prints, along with audio.

There is defiance in their voiced narratives — a refusal to be judged, an abandoning of the cycle of trips to stylists for touchups, a dismissal of what it means to be sexy or attractive. These are stories of triumph, and are easy to empathize with since everyone who watches TV or shops at the mall knows the standards of female beauty today.

But there is something different in their photos, something closer to capitulation to their own true nature. Gray hair is what their bodies have given them and that is what they accept. Horton photographs them gazing away from the camera and crops the background into oval shapes so they resemble the cameos of old. There is a timelessness to the photos, and a bit of serenity.

This is a lovely bit of art-making on Horton’s part. By bringing her own point of view as the photographer on the other end of the lens, she gets at a deeper truth, quieting the noisy and obvious discussion about gender roles in society and showing us what it means to be human and to control our own destiny no matter what people expect from us, on any topic. It’s about more than hair.

That is the strand that holds this show together, the idea that hair is a venue for creativity and expression, for personal art and exploration, indulgence, health and satisfaction. It runs energetically through Inyang Essien’s series “Idet,” which celebrates facets of Nigerian culture by showing how women weave thread into their hair to form it into loops, ropes and curls that radiate from their heads.

There can be a social context to these hairstyles, and as Essien says in her statement, some are specific to regions or the status that women hold in their communities. But these portraits are really about hair in a personal sense because they focus so tightly on how the subjects wear it. Again, we don’t see the faces, but we do feel their presence as people who chose to arrange their hair in a certain way because of how it makes them feel. These are not pictures of organisms; they are individuals, even if we do not know them personally.

If you go

“Culture of Hair” runs through June 25 at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, 1070 Bannock St. It’s free. Info: 303-837-1342 or cpacphoto.org.

That anonymity is also central to Tara Bogart’s series, “A Modern Hair Study,” which captures four different women photographed from behind with only their heads and backs visible. It’s Bogart’s update on a series of 19th-century images she found while looking through a photo archive.

The women are framed identically, and all look sort of the same, even though they have different skin colors and hair textures. In that sense, they represent the universal idea of young womanhood. But they stand apart through the way they choose to style their locks and how they change the colors or surround them with tattoos. We don’t know them as individuals, but we see how they use those choices reveal themselves as they move through adulthood and into their bodies. They stand in for everyone of a certain age.

Regina Hoffman also uses the technique of combining interviews with portraits and both the images and the “Hair Stories,” as she calls them, are compelling. Scan the QR code next to one of her shots and the person in the picture gives a brief bit about why they cut and dye the way they do.

The stories are full of surprises. Like the one from the young woman “Julia,” who talks about how daring it was to cut her hair super short and how her mother disapproved, but how it helped her understand and accept her “tomboy” persona. You expect it to be a story of rebellion against convention, but it’s just the opposite: It is a story of romantic self-awareness.

Finally, there is one video in the show, a 4:52 monochromatic loop called “The Haircut or … Learning to Let Go,” from DM Witman. The video has two channels, which document Witman shaving her head with clippers, going from chin-length wisps right down to bare skin. She stares directly into the camera, her gaze solemn as she describes the ritual as an expression of grief in response to communal trauma.

It’s difficult to watch, but do. Because the video brings depth to the entirety of “Culture of Hair.” In the exhibition’s other series, hair looks like a tool; here it looks like a weapon wielded against those things that would shape us instead of letting us shape ourselves. Witman does what the other artists do, only a bit more dangerously.

“Culture of Hair” is not a huge show, it fits into just one room. But what it suggests is something big and contradictory: that hair is not really for showing off to others. It is not about projecting outward power as much as it is complying with our own will.

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